‘Shoot-em-up’ video games are appealing to some people and appalling to others. But are they good for the brain? Well, yes, and no.
Research on the effects of action-oriented video game playing finds a mixture of seemingly positive and potentially negative effects on the brains of players.
How much do you see and how fast can your brain make use of that visual information? It turns out that the video-game-trained brain apparently makes more sense of visual stimuli and is able to act upon visual information faster.
Duke researchers compared 125 students who were either frequent gamers or non-gamers. Their news release explains the method: “Each participant was run though a visual sensory memory task that flashed a circular arrangement of eight letters for just one-tenth of a second. After a delay ranging from 13 milliseconds to 2.5 seconds, an arrow appeared, pointing to one spot on the circle where a letter had been. Participants were asked to identify which letter had been in that spot.”
While the frequent game players did not retain the information longer than the non-gamers, their short-term recall was consistently better, and, “They need less information to arrive at a probabilistic conclusion, and they do it faster,” says Appelbaum.
It seems that attentional capacity is being developed in frequent players of action-oriented video games. But at what cost?
Gentile confirms the Duke research cited above, stating: “In several training studies, these games have been found to influence various aspects of perceptual processing, including multiple object tracking, spatial resolution and central and peripheral attention skills. In other words, when you constantly need to scan the screen to detect little differences (because they may signal an enemy) and then orient attention to and target that area, you become better at those perceptual and attentional skills.
A Catalyst for Addiction and Violence?
A potential downside of this heightened perceptual awareness could be a concomitant tendency to see danger and hostility where there is none. Gentile explains: “…playing violent video games increases what is called a ‘hostile attribution bias’, a perceptual and cognitive bias to attribute hostile intentions to others’ actions. When people with such a bias are bumped into in the hallway, they assume that it was done with hostile intent rather than by accident, and the most automatic response is to retaliate in some way. The most comprehensive meta-analysis conducted to date included 136 papers detailing 381 independent tests of association conducted on 130,296 research participants. The analyses found that violent game play led to significant increases in desensitization, physiological arousal, aggressive cognition and aggressive behaviour. By contrast, pro-social behaviour was decreased.”
The potential of video game playing to become addictive was something that Gentile thought unlikely, until he researched the matter. He distinguishes between the popular understanding of the word ‘addiction’ as referring to someone spending a lot of time doing something (which he doesn’t consider an addiction) and the more clinical definition, which indicates that the behavior or activity in question negatively impacts other aspects of a person’s life (e.g. social, work, school).
“I began studying gaming from this more clinical approach, using criteria adapted from those for pathological gambling. Based on this much stricter set of criteria — which assess dysfunction in multiple areas of life (school, social, family, psychological and emotional functioning) — about 8% of U.S. gamers between 8 and 18 years of age could be considered pathological or ‘addicted’. There are now scores of studies showing that the pattern of problems that pathological gamers face are very similar to the problems that people with substance or gambling addictions have.”
Further, pathological gaming was found in a large study from Singapore to be directly related to depression and poor school performance in children and adolescents.
These findings lead one to wonder what parents can do to keep their children safe and healthy with respect to video games and the Internet in general. Gentile has that covered. His website has an excellent section for parents with basic information and links to his ‘Science of Parenting’ radio show, various podcasts and external links.