Headshot: Action video games found to improve brain's capacity to learn

New research demonstrates that action video games can result in improved learning capability in the real world (Photo: Shutterstock)

You're moving ever so cautiously through the abandoned village, with one eye on the radar and the other trained on the vacant window ahead. Then in an instant the enemy appears, causing you to spray your weapon in the general vicinity, guided partly by your action hero instincts but mostly by pure hope. Thinking through these video game situations may take less than a second, but new research shows it can also enhance real-world learning capabilities, enabling the brain to better anticipate sequences of events.

Researchers in brain and cognitive sciences at the University of Rochester were exploring the ability of the brain to predict what is about to happen, something they call "templates of the world." This might refer to a turn in a conversation, anticipating road traffic or more complicated tasks like performing surgery.

Led by professor Daphne Bavelier, the team sought to compare the visual performance of those who play action video games and those who don't. It found that the action-gamers performed at a higher level, with their brains using a better template for the job at hand.

But to ascertain whether those with better templates were led to high action video games, rather than the games leading to better templates, the team enlisted a group with negligible gaming experience. It directed half to play first person shooters, such as Call of Duty, and the other to play non-action games, such as The Sims. With all participants undergoing a pattern discrimination task before and after, the scientists observed that action game players could better build and fine-tune templates on the fly, something they equated to better learning.

"When they began the perceptual learning task, action video gamers were indistinguishable from non-action gamers; they didn’t come to the task with a better template,” said Bavelier. “Instead, they developed better templates for the task, much, much faster showing an accelerated learning curve.”

This is a similar model of experimentation employed by a Bavelier-led research team back in 2010. The previous study demonstrated that action video games assist with the ability to make quick decisions. But rather than the new research pointing to one particular cognitive function, Bavelier says it demonstrates an enhanced, general learning capability of the brain.

"Prior research by our group and others has shown that action gamers excel at many tasks. In this new study, we show they excel because they are better learners,” explains Bavelier. “And they become better learners by playing the fast-paced action games.”

Perhaps the most promising finding of the study is the lasting effects of immersing oneself in action video games. The researchers observed that several months and even up to a year later, the action game players still performed at a higher level than the non-action gamers.

The team is now exploring what particular characteristics of action video games actually lead to this heightened brain function. “Games other than action video games may be able to have the same effect,” says Baveleir. “They may need to be fast paced, and require the player to divide his or her attention, and make predictions at different time scales.”

The research was published in the journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

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