The video game industry is thriving like never before. According to a 2018 study, 60% of Americans report playing video games daily (Entertainment Software Association, 2015). Red Dead Redemption 2, released by Rockstar Games in October of 2018, recently made a splash by breaking the record for the biggest opening weekend in entertainment history, raking in $725 million in its first two days. With the rise of mobile gaming and technologies like augmented and virtual reality, video games are more immersive and more accessible than ever before. As such a popular medium for play, researchers have been studying video games and the way they affect our brains since the early 80s. The most well-known and commonly replicated of these studies is whether violent video games increase violent behavior and aggressive attitudes.
More recently, however, researchers have turned their attention towards other areas, and what they have found is somewhat shocking by comparison: there is evidence that video game play can significantly improve cognitive skills that help to promote learning. This paper examines recent studies conducted on video game play and attention to propose that frequent engagement in certain types of video game play is useful for people who would benefit from improved attentional control. The majority of studies that examine the link between games and cognitive processes have found that certain genres of games produce more significant results than others. Across the board, action video games have been found to have the strongest relationship to attentional control. This genre includes first- and third-person shooters, driving games, and other subgenres that emphasize real-time combat. Action games are characterized by extreme visual/temporal processing and motor response demands on the player.
Players often must attend to a single item or task while continuing to monitor the surrounding areas, search for task-relevant information in a visually cluttered space, and track many independently moving items that vary in speed and may pop in and out of view at random (Green, Gorman, & Bavalier, 2016, pg. 108). For these reasons, the studies discussed in this essay focus specifically on the relationship between action video games and attentional control. Researchers have tested various aspects of attentional control against action video game play. These include spatial visual attention, temporal selective attention, and attentional capacity.
These skills are crucial for goal maintenance and blocking out distracting information, as well as being able to attend to multiple stimuli at once. In these studies, subjects are given tasks that require them to select and maintain task-relevant information while blocking out or ignoring distracting stimuli. Action video games, as defined above, tend to require the same things of their players, which establishes the assumption that people who play video games regularly are likely to benefit in certain cognitive tasks from the increased practice of these skills. The first and probably most commonly studied subset of attentional control skills paired with video games is spatial selective attention. Spatial attention is what allows us to discriminate between the important and irrelevant information in our visual field. This skill is critical for blocking out distracting stimuli when attempting to focus on a task.
Imagine a first-person-shooter game in which the player suddenly has 10 enemies shooting at her. She must quickly search through the densely cluttered visual field to identify the important information: where the enemies are, where she may be able to take cover, if there are any tools or ammunition near her that may be helpful for the task of eliminating all 10 enemies. Then, she must focus on eliminating one enemy at a time, blocking out any distracting visual information that might make her shooting less accurate. Clearly in this scenario, visuospatial attentional control comes in handy. The question for researchers was one of causality: were players able to improve their spatial attention by playing the game, or were people with high spatial attentional control simply more likely to play these games because that skill makes them a better player? In 2007, Feng, Spence, and Pratt ran an experiment that addressed this question. They chose 20 subjects, all of whom reported no video game playing in the four years before the study.
The subjects were randomly assigned to an experimental group that would play an action video game, or a control group who would play a 3D puzzle (non-action) video game. Subjects were then tested using a useful-field-of-vision (UFOV) task. In the UFOV task, subjects were shown a central fixation square for 600ms, followed by the stimulus display for 30ms, which consisted of 24 distraction squares, arranged in groups of three, radiating out from the fixation point in eight directions. For each trial, one of the 24 distraction squares was replaced by a dark, filled-in square. Then, the subject was shown a masking display followed by a response cue.
They were asked to indicate the direction in which the target had appeared. After the initial task, subjects went through 10 hours of individually supervised gameplay, in 1-2 hour sessions over 4 weeks. At the end of the last hour of gameplay, they were given an immediate posttest on the UFOV task. All subjects were then re-tested on the UFOV task after a period of 16-24 weeks. At the end of the game training, subjects in both groups showed improved performance in their designated game. Only subjects in the experimental (action game) group, however, demonstrated significant improvement in the UFOV task. Their accuracy improved by 13% from the first task to the final one (Feng, Spence, & Pratt, 2007). By performing an intervention study on subjects who were all initially considered non-video game players, Feng et al. were able to produce evidence that action video games, and not other kinds of video games, can significantly improve the ability to attend to and pick out important information from a large visual field. Another fascinating phenomenon relating to visual attention is that of attentional blink.
This phenomenon is related to the temporal limits of attentional control and how we selectively allocate attention to different goals over time. In an attentional blink task, subjects are presented with a series of black letters, presented for 15ms, followed by a blank screen for 85ms. The subjects are instructed to look for two distinct targets: a white letter, and after the white letter is presented, the letter “X” in black. Subjects must report the identity of the white letter and whether or not the “X” appeared after the first target.
When the second target is presented 200-500ms after the first, subjects often fail to report seeing it. This is referred to as attentional blink, because the attention it requires to recognize and remember the first target does not allow the subject to attend the second target in time. Oei and Patterson performed a study to see if action video game training had any effect on attentional blink. They gathered 75 subjects, all of whom self-reported as non-video game players. These subjects were randomly assigned to one of five groups that would be trained on either a hidden-object, match-3, memory matrix, Sims, or action game.
They performed the initial attentional blink task, and then trained in their given video game for a total of 20 hours over 4 weeks. At the end of the 20 hours, they were tested again on the attentional blink task. The four non-action game groups showed no significant improvement in accuracy in the attentional blink task from pre- to post-training. But in the post-training task, the action group showed an average of about 90% accuracy (correctly identifying both targets) over all trials, whether or not the second target was presented during a 200-500ms time span after the first (Oei and Patterson, 2013). Therefore, action video game training not only reduced, but effectively eliminated the attentional blink effect altogether. This is evidence that action video game players are able to allocate attentional resources to at least two distinct tasks in quick succession without sacrificing accuracy at either task. Finally, researchers were curious about the effect video games have on the ability to divide attention between primary and secondary tasks.
Historically, divided attention tasks show that subjects perform poorly on secondary tasks if the primary tasks require large amounts of attentional resources. In action games, however, players are required to monitor and track several tasks at a time. They are often presented with multi-step main objectives, as well as having to monitor and respond to secondary information such as locations on a map, ammunition and when to reload or switch weapons, health/stamina, and various other tasks. Chiappe et al. put this to the test using a multi-attribute task battery, which tested four distinct tasks simultaneously. The test resembled a flight simulator, in which subjects were asked to use a joystick to maneuver a target, activate pumps to maintain fuel levels, monitor and respond to lights and dials, and perform several actions in response to auditory commands. Additionally, each test was 30 minutes long, meaning that subjects were required to maintain their attentional control over all the tasks for a potentially exhausting period of time.
Similarly to the other experiments mentioned in this essay, the subject pool was made up of 53 self-reported non-video game players, who were randomly assigned to either a control group or the experimental group. The control group played no games at all, while the experimental group were required to play a minimum of 50 hours of action games over 10 weeks. Subjects in the gaming group were also allowed to play more than the minimum amount of hours, if they so pleased. Researchers kept track of each subject’s hours of play to see if increased play had any effect on the results. After the post-test, they found that the gaming group had significantly faster and more consistent reaction times to the communication instructions than in the pre-test, and made significantly fewer errors in the systems monitoring task. Researchers also found that experimental subjects who spent more hours in-game responded faster to auditory commands than those who only played the minimum 50 hours.. These two tasks that showed improvement were considered the secondary tasks, because they were less demanding on attentional resources and also were not presented in the center of the visual field like the other two tasks. So, action game players showed improvement in the secondary tasks, and importantly, this effect did not come at the cost of accuracy in the primary tasks (Chiappe et al., 2013). The ability to effectively multitask is highly desirable in many professions, so this evidence that video games can increase attentional capacity and lessen the effects of divided attention is very valuable.
These results on attention and action games have interesting implications when applied more broadly. Other forms of brain training or games marketed as learning tools tend to be highly task-specific, which means performance can improve through repetition within the same context, but may be difficult to translate to other contexts.
The failure to generalize learning is heavily documented in many cognitive tasks and in various other psychological fields (Green et al., 2016, pg. 108). On the other hand, action games, simply by the nature of their format, help to generalize skills learned in-game by presenting them in various situations, locations, and with different goals or outcomes. Many multiplayer action games (Call of Duty, Halo) come with multiple maps and a variety of gametypes that require different strategies to win. Here, attention is required to recognize when and where different learned skills may be useful and to make quick decisions about how to apply them. Thus, the skills players learn in these games are more likely to be accessible in a new situation than a skill that was practiced only under one set of conditions.
This type of generalized learning is useful in job training or in classrooms, which is why many educators and trainers are moving toward implementation of video games as part of their instruction. But job training is only the beginning of the applications of this type of research. Improved attentional control and capacity is useful to anyone, but some subsets of people might find it more beneficial than others. Video games may actually be able to be used to treat disorders that are linked to a lack of attentional control. For example, some cognitive psychologists have suggested that low attentional control may contribute to some forms of dyslexia. Dyslexia is generally recognized by the inability to decode words by matching letters and letter combinations to their respective sounds.
Educators have created remedial programs based on this definition of the disorder, which tend to focus on intense instruction using the rules of phonics. But it also makes sense to think that poor visual attention may make it difficult for a person to visually discriminate between letters in a page full of text, whether they knew the letter sounds or not. An experiment by Franceschini and colleagues examined the effects of action video game play on dyslexic children. Out of twenty subjects with diagnosed dyslexia, 50% were randomly assigned to the action video game group, while the other 50% were assigned to a non-action video game group. After a pre-test in phonological decoding, subjects were trained in their respective games for a total of 12 hours before being given the post-test.
The results showed that the action video game group showed significant improvements in decoding ability, both of real and pseudo-words, characterized by increased reading speed without a cost in accuracy. The researchers also note that the improvements made by the action game group after 12 hours of gameplay exceeded the expected improvements of a dyslexic child in one year of spontaneous reading training (Franceschini et al., 2013). While these results don’t necessarily mean that dyslexia is caused exclusively by poor attentional control, it provides convincing evidence that action video games may be useful as part of remediation plans for those suffering from the disorder. Likewise, other disorders linked to a lack of attention, such as ADHD or schizophrenia, may also see benefits from the inclusion of video game play in treatment regimens. Action video games are often derided as violent, antisocial, and addicting, and many people truly believe they will rot your brain! But we are beginning to see considerable evidence to the contrary. While gameplay and screen time in moderation is always recommended, worried parents might want to think again before writing off video games as a hobby.
These games can actually help us become more attentive, less susceptible to distraction, better learners and workers, and may even help to treat learning and brain disorders. Video games are no longer purely for entertainment; they’re an investment in our brains, too.
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