Brain Changing Games

By Lydia Denworth | Jan/Feb 2013 | Scientific American Mind | Topics: Learning, Science and Health

Playing violent video games can sharpen our focus, reasoning and decision-making skills. But do we really need the weapons?

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.”

New Vision

Bavelier stumbled on the subject of video games by accident. Until a decade ago, her laboratory focused on the effects of congenital deafness on vision. In the fall of 2000 she assigned an undergraduate, C. Shawn Green, to program his own version of a standard test of visual attention in which individuals first identify a central white square and then indicate on a touch screen the location of a shape that briefly flashes some distance away. The task, known as the “useful field of view,” measures spatial attention–that is, the ability to keep track of multiple locations and shift attention across space. You employ this skill while driving, for example, to transfer your focus from the road to a sudden movement on the right. When Green tested it on himself, he did about twice as well as the norm. He faulted his programming, but brought in some friends to test it further. They scored as high as Green did.

So Bavelier took the test. She fell within the normal range, meaning she did rather poorly. “We looked at each other and said, ‘What’s common between you and your friends?’” Bavelier remembers. The answer: they all regularly played action-packed, first-person-shooter video games.

Bavelier reassigned Green to a new study that compared various aspects of visual attention in eight action gamers and eight nongamers. In one task, subjects reported how many squares flashed on a screen at one time. The more items a person can register immediately, without counting them one by one, the greater his or her attentional capacity. Gamers averaged 4.9 items versus 3.3 for nongamers. In a test of attention to locations in space, gamers were roughly twice as accurate as nongamers at indicating where targets appeared. Gamers also significantly outperformed nongamers when they had to identify, and thus pay attention to, whether certain letters appeared in a string of letters flashed in rapid succession.

The action-game players were not more attentive from the start, the researchers determined. Instead, it appears that experience with these games is what improves attention. Bavelier and Green had nine non-gamers play Medal of Honor, a first-person shooter set on the battlefield, for an hour a day for 10 days while eight non-gamers played Tetris. Before and after training, both groups took three tests of visual attention. Those who played Medal of Honor improved on all three tasks; those who played Tetris showed no improvements. Bavelier did not yet know what accounted for the benefits, but she guessed that the simultaneous demands of action games might be a critical ingredient. Tetris, after all, requires attending to only one falling tile at a time.

With such striking results in hand, Bavelier decided to approach action video games more methodically. First, she backtracked to examine the games’ effect on vision. “We were trying to understand whether very early sensory processes, which typically are not very plastic, might be changed for the better,” she says. To study visual acuity–a person’s ability to see detail–she and Green asked 10 gamers and 10 nongamers to say whether a T was right side up or upside down as other T shapes crowded in. They measured how close together the letters could be before interfering with performance. This skill—actually the ability to see detail in cluttered visual environments—is critical for reading. Gamers could tolerate more crowding and still pick out the T, suggesting their detail detection was better. In addition, nongamers who trained on an action game, this time Unreal Tournament 2004, improved on the task. In other findings, Bavelier and her team demonstrated that gamers also have better contrast sensitivity, or the capacity to distinguish different degrees of gray, which is useful for driving a car in fog (and a necessary skill for radiologists).

Playing video games might even ameliorate certain visual disorders. In amblyopia, or “lazy eye,” blurred or otherwise poor vision in one eye disrupts neuronal circuits in the visual cortex during development, leaving one eye underdeveloped. In children, doctors patch the dominant eye to strengthen the weaker eye. Yet the treatment does not work in adults. In 2011 research optometrists Roger Li and Dennis Levi and their colleagues at the University of California, Berkeley, published a pilot study in which 10 adults with amblyopia played Medal of Honor for 40 hours with one eye patched. Three other patients played a nonaction video game, and seven had their eyes patched before play began. Tested before and after training, patients who played one-eyed saw their acuity improve more than 30 percent, a fivefold greater recovery than would be expected from patching in children. In addition, the adults’ spatial attention skills got a 40 percent boost, and their depth perception was enhanced by 50 percent. Li and Levi are now conducting a randomized trial with another 20 patients. They expect results within two years.

Big Thinkers

If games improve eyesight and visual attention, researchers considered what other brain processes they might be able to tweak. Cognitive psychologist Ian Spence of the University of Toronto wondered why males tend to perform better than females on tasks such as field of view, which measures spatial attention, and mental rotation, which tests a higher-level capacity called spatial reasoning that enables us to visualize how objects behave in three-dimensional space. Both types of spatial skills correlate with success in science and math. Spence and his colleague, Jing Feng, a psychologist, theorized that video games could partially account for the gender gap, because more males play them and because Green and Bavelier’s work suggested that playing these games had benefits for spatial attention.

First, they established a disparity in spatial attention along gender lines in a group of 48 university students. They then divided six male and 14 female students, none of them gamers, into matched pairs of the same sex. One member of each pair trained for 10 hours on Medal of Honor: Pacific Assault and the other played Ballance, a three-dimensional puzzle game involving steering a ball through an obstacle-laden maze. After training, action-game players improved by 10 to 15 percent on both the field-of-view task and a mental rotation challenge, whereas the puzzle-game players saw no change. In both instances, the females improved the most, virtually erasing the gender disparity in Field of View and significantly reducing it in mental rotation. The results indicate that the theory was right: a difference in gaming experience between males and females could account for some of the gender inequality in spatial skills. Also, notably, playing these games can sharpen both types of spatial acuity and therefore, perhaps, even scientific aptitude.

Indeed, in a study published last year cognitive psychologist Christopher Sanchez, now at Oregon State University, connected game-induced improvements in spatial reasoning with the ability to learn certain types of scientific material. Participants played just 25 minutes of either Halo, an interstellar first-person shooter, or Word Whomp, a timed spelling game. Next, they read a brief nonscientific text as a diversionary task followed by an explanation of plate tectonics. Finally, they wrote an essay on the causes of the eruption of Mount St. Helens. Those who played Halo scored better on the essay than those who played Word Whomp as measured by their knowledge of five facts about plate tectonics. Spatial reasoning also improved after playing Halo (but not after the word game), as determined by two standard tests of this skill taken before and after the session. “In first-person-shooter games, you are rotating constantly and locating yourself in space,” says Sanchez, who believes this skill is linked to grasping some types of concepts. “When you’re trying to learn [plate tectonics,] you’re extrapolating a spatial mental representation, a three-dimensional model that is running and changing all the time inside your head.”

Action gamers are also better at making decisions when a rapid response is important, according to a 2010 study by Green and Bavelier, probably because they are faster at assessing new visual information. They asked 12 nongamers and 11 gamers to look at a display of moving dots and indicate the net direction of motion–whether more dots were moving to the right or left. Both groups were equally accurate, but gamers were substantially faster at deciding. A second experiment in which participants were asked to distinguish pure tones from white noise showed that gamers were also faster at making decisions about auditory input. This type of decision making can be critical behind the wheel. For example, it enables a driver to recognize more rapidly whether the flash of movement to the right of the vehicle is relevant: Is it a boy about to run in front of the car or an inconsequential flashing light?

Video games also train hand-eye coordination, although the primary improvement in this domain appears to be cognitive. In a 2010 study neuroscientist Lauren E. Sergio of York University in Toronto and her colleagues scanned the brains of gamers and nongamers (13 of each) using functional MRI while they performed increasingly difficult hand-eye tasks while looking at a screen. The easiest tasks were those in which a person could watch a target, such as pressing a tab on the screen, followed by those that required a user to look away from their hands, akin to using a mouse to operate a computer. In the most difficult tests, participants could not look at their hands and had to move a joystick in the opposite direction of the stimulus–if it moved right, they moved left–meaning they had to inhibit the natural tendency to follow what the eye sees. The harder the task, the more it recruited a part of the brain behind the forehead called the prefrontal cortex, which is involved in planning complex actions and, when necessary, can act as an inhibitor of gut responses, forcing us to stop and reconsider.

“Everybody used the same basic network of brain parts, and the performance was the same, but the network was reweighted,” Sergio says. “The gamers were using much less of the basic motor control parts, and other areas were more active, mainly in the front part of the brain.” The difference was greatest on the most difficult skills, such as those that involved acting in a manner discordant with that of a cue. We need to employ such cognitive control, for example, to steer a sailboat, which turns left when the tiller is moved right, and vice versa. These results, Sergio believes, suggest that gamers use their prefrontal cortex to perform visuomotor skills more than nongamers do. This pattern, which is also seen in concert musicians, is considered a sign of expertise and may lead to better performance during extremely complex motor feats, such as piano playing or surgery.

A striking application of this skill surfaced in a 2007 study of 33 laparoscopic surgeons, who operate while looking through a camera rather than directly at the patient. Developmental psychologist Douglas A. Gentile of Iowa State University tested the doctors on a set of standardized suturing skills. “The number-one predictor of surgical skill was how good they were at video games,” he says. “The number-two predictor was how much they had played video games in the past. Only after that did we get to things like how many years of training they had or how many surgeries they had performed.” Other researchers have found similar results with airplanes and drone pilots.

Just a Game?

Despite such positive findings, heavy use of video games can also have serious drawbacks. Game addiction has not yet been officially recognized as a disorder, but studies by Gentile and others found between 5 and 11 percent of children worldwide say such games are disrupting their lives, suggesting they could be considered addicted. In the U.S., where Gentile worked with Harris Polls, the figure was 8.5 percent. In contrast, 4 to 6 percent of casino gamblers are considered addicted. Thus, even if playing violent video games can be beneficial, as Gentile recognizes it can be, people need to be alert to the dangers of too high a dose.

Gentile has also been taking a closer look at the content of these violent games, the blowing things up that the president decried. Researchers agree that violent videogames lead to a short-lived increase in aggression. “Even though you know it’s just a game, your body dumps stress hormones into your bloodstream that get you prepared to fight,” Gentile says. “Once you stop playing, it wears off after half an hour.”

Of more concern are studies across thousands of gamers indicating that regular exposure to violent video games (meaning several hours a week) accounts for 1 to 4 percent of the many possible triggers for aggression. (Other predictors range from provocation to poverty and child abuse.). Most consider this percentage to be a small effect. Gentile also emphasizes that protective factors such as involved parents and good social skills can minimize the problem. Put another way, players for whom games can spawn violence usually have other troubles. If you are looking at violent crime, Gentile agrees video games have almost nothing to do with it. Still, he adds, gaming could have an impact on milder forms of aggressiveness. “If what you care about is the everyday aggression you see in seventh grade—people ostracizing one another, saying unkind things, bullying,” Gentile explains. “I say there’s a huge effect. Games change the way kids see the world.”

Making Peace

Ideally, then, researchers would be able to tease out the beneficial ingredients of these games to create nonviolent versions that train brains just as effectively. So far these factors seem to include operating from a first-person point of view, managing multiple streams of information and goals, and making rapid decisions. Bavelier imagines a game in which you are on a planet where animals are suffering from a deadly disease. You are the veterinarian who must find them and inject them with lifesaving medicine. To add to the challenge, the disease is deadly to humans, so you cannot let them touch you. “It’s all the same dynamics of an action game,” says Bavelier, “but suddenly you’re doing good.”

What makes games fun and absorbing are rich graphics and sufficiently complex storylines. All of it stimulates the brain’s reward system—a jolt of dopamine, a neurotransmitter associated with pleasure that both encourages continued play and sparks learning. “The very mechanics that seem to make commercially successful games super-fun are also the ones that are seeming to have the positive effects in terms of brain plasticity,” says Alan Gershenfeld, president of E-Line Media, a company he co-founded to create games for learning, health and social impact.

Success in building a new suite of brain-changing games, however, will require not only good science but also partnerships between neuroscientists and expert game designers. Bavelier has joined forces with Gershenfeld, and the two are raising funds to develop what they say will be the first game “designed from the ground up” to take advantage of the new research: a nonviolent action game targeted at developing number sense in eight- to 14-year-olds.

Meanwhile some existing nonviolent video games may lead to other benefits. In a 2009 study Gentile found that pro-social games, those that require cooperation, make children more helpful and sociable. “I don’t believe action games are going to be the solution to everything—quite the contrary,” Bavelier says. Given that games are here to stay, getting the best out of them could be an epic win for everyone.