People who play action video games are known for their fast reaction times compared to those who don't play the games. And it isn't that they are just "trigger happy," according to researchers who report their findings in the September 14th issue of Current Biology, a Cell Press publication.
Rather, gamers are better at making quick and accurate decisions based on evidence extracted from their surroundings (a skill known as probabilistic inference). That appears to explain why video game-playing skills translate into broad improvements in many kinds of tasks, regardless of whether those tasks depend on the ability to pay attention or visual acuity, said Daphne Bavelier of the University of Rochester.
Such transfer of learning is notable because most kinds of training lead to improvements only on the specific task at hand, with limited improvements on other, even closely related tasks. "That's why when you give a test that's just a little different from what you did in class, half the students fall flat," Bavelier said. "Transfer of learning is lacking."
These benefits of video games stem only from action games, which almost always means "shooter games, where you go through a maze and you don't know when a villain will appear," Bavelier said. "It's not exactly what you'd think of as mind enhancing." Strategy or role-playing games don't have the same effect.
Bavelier was able to compare the skills of action gamers versus non-gamers through a series of carefully controlled and simple decision-making experiments in which people were presented with an array of dots and asked to identify the primary direction of the dots' motion. That task was made easier or more difficult by varying the number of dots moving in the same direction. Video game players were able to make those judgments faster without sacrificing accuracy, Bavelier and her colleagues found. Video game players also excelled in an auditory decision-making test in which participants were presented with noises through headphones and asked to decide whether the sound was heard in their right or their left ear.
The reason for such broad improvements in performance may be that action video games don't have a clear "answer." They are inherently unpredictable. "Unlike standard learning paradigms, which have a highly specific solution, there is no such specific solution in action video games because situations are rarely, if ever, repeated," the researchers write. "Thus, the only characteristics that can be learned are how to rapidly and accurately learn the statistics on the fly and how to accumulate this evidence more efficiently."
The researchers don't yet know exactly what happens at the level of neurons when people play video games to support those decision-making skills. But it's not that video games appeal to people with super vision or an unusual attention to detail, Bavelier said. Non-gamers who are forced to play action video games for 50 hours get better at making informed decisions, too. You don't even have to like playing the games--you just have to play them.
The researchers include C. Shawn Green, Alexandre Pouget, and Daphne Bavelier, University of Rochester, Rochester, NY.