I would have liked to file the following talk under ‘research I like because it reinforces my existing patterns of behavior’, but it turns out that I actually play the wrong kind of games. Nevertheless, Daphne Bavelier’s lecture about the awesomeness of gamers and how becoming a gamer can make you more awesome was a very fun one.
Her research shows that playing video games is good for you. Gamers who play action video games (like Medal of Honor, Call of Duty, Doom etc.) are better at a variety of learning tasks than non-gamers, even when the skills that those learning tasks test have nothing to do with skills that could have been learned in the game.
Does this mean that playing video games makes you a better learner, or simply that better learners tend to play video games? To figure this out, subjects were tested on a learning task before and after playing 50 hours of video games. The people that played the action game ended up learning faster than those that played another kind of game. So, it looks like video gaming can actually make you a better at learning tasks.
A problem with training for a specific task, is that the training normally improves performance only on that task. For example, training on a specific type of visual learning task improves your performance only on that task, not on other visual learning tasks. In the same way, expert tetris players are not automatically experts in playing Super Mario or chess. Nor are expert violinists always good piano players. Dr. Bavelier’s gamers, however, are better at a wide range of learning tasks. What’s up with that?
But I need it for my brain! Science says so!
The gamers are not only better, but also faster at learning tasks than other subjects, because they have better attention. They are better at filtering out irrelevant noise from the environment and focus on the things that really matter to learn something. fMRI studies also show that gamers can do the same task with less brain activation. In this sense, they are similar to expert meditators.
Gaming teaches you how to be a better learner. How could we use this for good things besides fun?
Apart from being better learners, which is good for anything that requires learning, gamers also have better contrast sensitivity when their vision is tested. Contrast sensitivity is a trainable skill, which means that in theory, gaming could be used as a training to improve vision. Where usual strategies for improving vision are generally focused on the eyes (think glasses, contact lenses etc.), games could change vision at the level of the brain. This would be useful for adults with amblyopia (lazy eye), for example, for whom the putting a patch on the eye has not helped to improve vision in one of their eyes. Bavelier hopes that games could be used to help reopen a critical period for acquiring stereovision for these people.
Apart from that, gamers also have a better number sense than non-gamers. Kids with better number sense are better at learning more abstract math later on. If we could use games to train number sense, this could lead to improved math performance in school, which is good for a whole lot of other things that require some grasp on mathematics.
Other uses for video games could be training the workforce, improving education systems, help remedy some of the cognitive symptoms of aging, and perhaps even to aid rehabilitation. Although I have to say that improving general learning does in patients undergoing some sort of rehabilitation is only of limited use when they lack the means to do anything with those skills. A stroke patient may benefit from becoming a better learner, but if she has no working motor cortex, this will not be enable her to move her arm any sooner or better.
To be able to widely apply of games to help us all improve, it is important to find out which aspects of the games are relevant and to apply them in a variety of different game settings. Not everyone enjoys playing first-person shooters and I suspect that training will be a lot less effective if the persons that are to be trained resent playing.
Although all these benefits of playing action video games sound almost too good to be true, I think they give some reason to think about the way we study and train in a new way. If we can use the games to help ourselves learn to learn, without feeling like we are doing ‘the boring learning thing’, this is good. After all, who doesn’t like to play?
More from FENS:
FENS day 1: All the cells!
FENS day 2: Dendritic computation