A new Swiss study suggests that playing video games, especially first-person shooter games like GTA and Call of Duty, facilitates the kind of learning that could be useful for other tasks.
GENEVA — Call of Duty, Battlefield, Grand Theft Auto (GTA). When action video games are discussed in the media, it's more often for their controversial content and their potentially harmful effects on behavior than for their virtues. But as data accumulates, it's becoming undeniable that they can also be beneficial for the brain.
Daphné Bavelier, a cognitive science professor at the University of Geneva, has been studying the effects of video games on the brain for the past 10 years. It's a field that she discovered accidentally in the course of a neuroscience study in which one of the volunteers accomplished tests with disconcerting ease. He was also a video game expert, which made her explore this new lead. Since then, she has discovered numerous links between these games and certain cognitive functions.
Until now, most of these studies have simply listed the effects of these games without really explaining the mechanisms. "Video games, especially action games, have effects on functions that, in principle, have no connection between each other — for instance, visual acuity and decision-making," Bavelier says. "So finding a common mechanism to all these effects isn't easy."
It is, however, what she and her team have done in a study recently published in PNAS, the official scientific journal of the National Academy of Sciences. According to their conclusions, video games may in fact facilitate learning new skills. "We have discovered that if gamers have, for instance, better visual acuity, it is not because video games have given them a better eyesight, but rather because they have learned to see better," Bavelier explains.
The typical action video game is the FPS (first-person shooter). Like in the popular Call of Duty game, the expand=1] player is in control of a character and sees through his eyes. The action takes place in dangerous worlds, is partly unpredictable, and requires constant anticipation of what is happening outside the field of vision to be able to react quickly and survive.
The researchers mainly wanted to determine whether these video games really have an effect on learning. To do so, they recruited 20 volunteers, including FPS experts and occasional players of other types of video games.
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Counter Strike screenshot — Photo: Chris Moore
They were asked to complete a series of visual discrimination exercises, a standard tool for cognitive science. The repetition of these exercises allowed the researchers to assess whether the subjects improved with each test, which revealed their learning skills. The result was that the action game experts received far better scores than the others.
Action seems to be key
But if FPS players are better, is it because of their hobby, or because of a natural tendency before they started playing? To know this, the scientists imagined a second experiment in which about 30 volunteers who were not very familiar with video games took part. These guinea pigs were asked to practice either playing action games (Call of Duty 2 and Unreal Tournament 2004) or simulation games (The Sims 2 or Restaurant Empire) for 50 hours, over 9 weeks. Their learning skills were assessed with the same test, before and after this training period, to determine whether video games played any role. The verdict: Those who played FPS improved significantly, whereas no improvement at all was observed with the other players.
During their experiments, the researchers studied the process of skill transfer. Can skills be immediately used in other situations, or are they limited to one unique task, as is usually the case in cognitive science? Previous studies suggest video games are an exception and that the skills they help to develop are immediately transferable to other situations. One of them, published in 2011, demonstrated that surgeons who regularly played video games have a better visual-motor coordination than those who do not play video games. Similar results have also been found for pilots.
But Daphné Bavelier’s results offer a nuance to the interpretation. "There is no transfer, because when we compared their progress curves over time, we noted that FPS players are not immediately better than others," explains Alexandre Pouget from the University of Geneva, who participated in the study. "They have the same initial level, but they learn more efficiently and faster over time."
For psychology Professor Olivier Houdé from Paris Descartes University, these results show that "experts in action video games have, in some way, learned to learn. They developed faster adaptation skills, something they applied to other tasks."
Video games that teach how to learn? Educational or therapeutic applications seem to be in sight now. But first, it's important to identify which aspects of FPS games are significant in order to test them independently. "We're still far away," admits Bavelier, who can only offer hypotheses. "Still, the notion of speed and constantly changing focus seem to have an effect."
Over time, we can imagine video games specially designed for children suffering from learning disorders, or for amblyopic patients, who suffer from reduced visual acuity.