Play a certain video game, or a certain genre of video games, for long enough and you get pretty good at recognizing what the game wants you to do. Shoot here, jump over this, pick up that. You learn to rapidly identify and act on visual cues the game presents you with. Just a momentary flicker or glow of a hidden spot on a boss’ body will immediately draw your eyes and your gun/bow/sword.
A small study recently published in the journal PLOS ONE now suggests that not only are gamers better able to identify targets and other visual stimuli than non-gamers, but they are better at learning those tasks as well.
Studies have repeatedly shown that gamers process visual information differently. In fact, many studies of visual processing have to exclude gamers outright. “When we study perceptual learning we usually exclude people who have tons of video game playing time because they seem to have different visual processing. They are quicker and more accurate,” said senior author Yuka Sasaki in a press release.
But are gamers, like professional athletes, better able to pick up and retain skills that resemble the tasks that they’ve “trained” for while bataranging a bad guy or sticking a sword into a colossus? To find out, Aaron Berard, Matthew Cain, Takeo Watanabe, and Yuka Sasaki from Brown University’s Laboratory for Cognitive and Perceptual Learning gave 18 participants a common visual test.
Over the course of two days, nine gamers and nine non-gamers trained on processing tasks like you see above. The goal is to identify, in a faction of a second, the areas in each photo that don’t “fit”. Groups were randomly assigned to start with either the horizontal or vertical task. After training with one, the participants were quickly tested on the other.
Previous studies have shown that people get better at these discriminating tasks, but only when the brain is given enough time to consolidate — make or strengthen the necessary neural pathways — the skill. If a person moves too quickly from one task to another, for example, learning the second task will impair improvement on the first.
This is the challenge that the researchers wanted to give to gamers. If their visual processing skills, refined by years of looking for red barrels in enemy-filled corridors, really could help them learn new visual tasks, then gamers might improve on both tasks. In other words, years of gaming might deal any impairment. It did.
Gamers improved on both visual discrimination tasks the second day. On average, they had an 11 percent increase in speed and accuracy on the first task and an 15 percent increase on the second. Non-gamers also improved by around 15 percent on their second task, but did worse on the first by an average of 5 percent. Consolidation honed over years of button mashing apparently made the difference.
Though the findings of the study were statistically significant, the study was very small and did not establish any cause and effect. It could be the case that years of gaming made participants better visual learners. But it could also be the case that better visual learners just happen to play more video games. Still, this study adds weight to the research showing that gaming isn’t just a waste of time. It could be brain-training.
“If we can demonstrate that video games may actually improve some cognitive functioning,” says Aaron Berard, “perhaps we, as a society, can embrace newer technology and media with positive application.”
IMAGES: Berard AV, Cain MS, Watanabe T, Sasaki Y