January/February, 2013 | Scientific American Mind
Playing violent video games can sharpen our focus, reasoning and decision-making skills. But do we really need the weapons?
By Lydia Denworth
I am in an overgrown lot leaning against an eight-foot tall shipping container. I look both ways, weighing my options. A man with an assault rifle is looking for me, just as I am looking for him. Hoping for a better vantage point, I run toward the abandoned car to my right. A metallic bang rings out as my opponent’s shot hits the wall I have just left. I dodge around the next container then circle behind it. Raising my M-16, I peer through the scope as I run. There he is! I hit the track pad of my laptop hard and fast, but my aim is wobbly. I miss. He spins, fires, and I’m dead.
So ended my introduction to first-person shooter video games. Clearly, I was not very good. With practice, I would probably get better. What is less obvious is that a decade of research has shown that if I spent a few more hours playing Call of Duty, I could improve more than my aim and the life expectancy of my avatar. Aspects of my vision, attention, spatial reasoning, and decision-making would all change for the better.
These striking findings have contributed to a shift in the national conversation about video games. Not long ago, a few lone voices contested the conventional wisdom that they were at best frivolous and at worst a dangerous waste of time and brainpower. Yet more than 90 percent of children play them, and adults do, too. In fact, the average gamer’s age is 33 years. Along with continuing popularity has come a surge in acknowledgement of the positive sides of gaming. Game designer Jane McGonigal’s 2011 book Reality is Broken even argued that games can change the world and the book became a bestseller. In a 2011 speech to students, President Barack Obama recognized the potential and called for investment in educational technology, although with a caveat: “I want you guys to be stuck on a video game that’s teaching you something other than just blowing something up.”
Teaching is the critical word. The most consequential conclusion of the research is that videogames have a power few other activities can claim. With practice, a violinist can play a Mozart string concerto beautifully, but that will not make her better at much else. Gamers, though, do not just learn to be good at shooting. In neurological terms, action videogames seem to “retune connectivity across and within different brain areas,” according to neuroscientist Daphne Bavelier of the University of Rochester and the University of Geneva. That means that gamers “learn to learn.” The ability to apply learning to broader tasks is called transfer, and it is the holy grail of education.
So far the games shown to have the most potent neurological effects are the ones parents hate the most: violent first-person shooters. Scientists are trying to figure out how and why these games affect players so as to create products that emphasize benefits but have fewer drawbacks. “I’m really interested in how the brain learns and how we can promote brain plasticity for learning,” says Bavelier. “The issue is trying to understand how technology can be leveraged for the better.”
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