New Study: Violent Video Games Make You A Better Learner

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.

Preparing for his homework
Preparing for his homework
Fabien Goubet

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.

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.

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How Low Trust In Government Fuels Violence Against Politicians

The deadly stabbing of UK MP David Amess confirms this researcher's ongoing study on trust and governance in democracies around the world: It's bad.

Tribute to slain UK MP David Amess in Leigh-on-Sea on Oct. 15

James Weinberg

The killing of British Conservative MP David Amess, who was stabbed to death in his constituency on October 15, is a tragic moment for democracy. What makes it even more devastating is that such a catastrophic failure is not without precedent or predictability. Labour MP Jo Cox was shot at her constituency surgery in 2016. Before her, another Labour MP, Stephen Timms, survived a stabbing in 2010. And Andrew Pennington, a Gloucestershire county councillor, died in a frenzied attack in 2001 while trying to protect local Liberal Democrat MP Nigel Jones.

This is to say nothing of the 2018 attack on the Palace of Westminster that left police officer Keith Palmer dead and MPs in a state of shock.

Beyond these critical junctures in the public debate about politicians' safety, elected representatives must live with an increasingly insidious level of popular cynicism that threatens violence on an almost daily basis.

Between the divisive politics of Brexit and the growing polarization of British party politics, MPs currently work in a low-trust, high-blame environment. Even before the existential angst and subsequent politicking of the COVID-19 pandemic, a recent Hansard Society audit of political engagement concluded that “opinions of the systems of governing are at their lowest point in the 15-year Audit series – worse now than in the aftermath of the MPs' expenses scandal."

The ramifications of governing in such an age of distrust are significant for the mental health and wellbeing of politicians. With colleagues, I've argued that such visceral and endemic distrust is a key stressor in political life. People are not simply wary or skeptical of politicians, they now routinely criticize their personalities and dismiss their good intentions. At its most severe, this “distrust stressor" manifests in the growing threat of physical violence faced by politicians.

Unfortunately, the distrust stressor is commonplace in the febrile climate of post-millennial UK politics. Serious cases of stalking and harassment have become a “common experience" for MPs. In the UK general election of 2017, for example, 56% of surveyed parliamentary candidates expressed concern about the levels of abuse and intimidation they had received and 31% said they had felt “fearful" during the campaign. Misuse of anonymous social media accounts has intensified these problems and created a toxic environment for elected politicians that regularly exposes them to online rape and murder threats.

Governing under threat

As part of an ongoing study of trust and governance in five democracies around the world, I recently carried out more than 50 in-depth interviews with junior and senior politicians in national legislatures, including questions on the stresses and strains of political life.

Reflecting on the ramifications of simply doing their job, one Conservative MP commented:

There have been votes that have been controversial, and you can then get a lot of abuse as a result of picking a side. My office has been vandalized, I've had stuff sent to me in the post, I've received death threats. And you do build up a very thick skin doing this job, there's no shadow of a doubt. Because one week in it, if you're not able to roll with the punches, you won't see through a whole term.

Almost 40% of interviewees were able to cite more than one instance of serious abuse or threats of physical violence. Not only are these experiences felt across both sides of the political aisle in the UK, but they also appear to be growing more common in other democratic contexts where the climate of politics has been presumed to be both calmer and more volatile. As one MP in New Zealand told me:

I've had some pretty horrible death threats and I've had a lot of abuse, particularly through social media. But also, funnily enough, in writing and phone calls. Unfortunately it's becoming more part of our political life.

Another, this time in South Africa, said:

What [this group of constituents] were saying is that if the water supply was not fixed by a certain time, they were going to kill me. And what they did is they took a tyre and said that this tyre was going to go around my neck and they're going to light it and that was going to be my demise. Listen, when you see your life flash before your eyes… you start to question whether it's worth it.

In the UK, analysis of data from the Representative Audit of Britain (a survey of all parliamentary candidates who stood in general elections between 2015 and 2019) suggests that the harassment, abuse and intimidation of elected and aspiring politicians is also highly gendered. Women politicians, and black and minority ethnic women in particular, experience a disproportionate share of sexualized abuse online. They also receive more aggressive and sexualized threats offline.

Contact between politicians and the public is at the very heart of effective democratic representation.

It is relatively easy to understand why all this would be detrimental to politicians' professional competence and their sense of personal worth and wellbeing, but it is harder to find solutions to this crisis.

Home Secretary Priti Patel has called for increased security measures in the wake of Amess's death. This is welcome but it's an instrumental response which might not be easy to implement. Political contact between politicians and the public is at the very heart of effective democratic representation – and it is unlikely that most MPs will agree to suspend constituency surgeries or fill their offices with armed guards at a time when governor-governed relations are already so strained.

Photo of \u200bNew Zealand's parliament in Wellington

New Zealand's parliament in Wellington

Guo Lei/Xinhua/ZUMA

Compassion and education

While specific issues around MPs' security and training are grappled with, we also need a call for conscious restraint and compassion in political discourse. When some politicians themselves resort to dog-whistle populism, verbal abuse and infighting, it broadcasts an image of politics as an arena for incivility. At the same time, it perpetuates a binary worldview that crowds out the possibility of empathy and compromise.

Alongside this, we need to overhaul the media coverage of politics. Increasingly intent on personalizing the political and politicizing the personal, a 24-hour news media too often drip feeds blunt stereotypes about politicians' personalities and motives. In contrast to much news coverage of politicians, my own research with hundreds of elected MPs and councillors has shown that the majority enter politics with an extraordinary dedication to improving the lives of others that is rarely perceived or appreciated by those they govern.

A deficit in democratic education leads to inflated public expectations about what is possible.

Equally important, nations around the world must commit to fully funded and well-resourced programmes of democratic education. Politics is messy and full of contingencies, and a deficit in democratic education leads to inflated public expectations about what is possible or desirable. In turn, this breeds disappointment and lowered self-efficacy, which together disrupt the positive potential of deliberative participation.

Ultimately, there is no place for political violence, harassment or intimidation in a functioning democracy. At the very least, politicians are ordinary humans attempting to undertake an extraordinary job on behalf of everybody else. Whatever their political views, nobody who has the courage to "step into the arena", to paraphrase Theodore Roosevelt, deserves to fear for their life in the pursuit of public service. To say that we need to rediscover civility and respect in our politics is once again an understatement of a devastating truth.The Conversation


James Weinberg is a lecturer in Political Behavior at the University of Sheffield

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

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