Action-Packed Video Games May Be Good for You After All

TUESDAY Sept. 14, 2010 -- Fast-action video games may help train people to make quick, accurate decisions in all aspects of life, new findings suggest.

The authors of a study published Sept. 14 in the journal Current Biology theorize that action games like Halo encourage players to better use evidence drawn from their senses in decision-making, a skill known as probabilistic inference.

And their decisions are just as accurate as those of non-players, which is evidence that the fast-paced gamers are not responding in a "trigger-happy" fashion, the researchers said.

"They are making more efficient use of the information that is out there," said C. Shawn Green, lead author of the study and a postdoctoral associate at the University of Minnesota's department of psychology. "They are pulling more information from the sensory world, related to the decision facing them."

It was only action games, which are commonly "shooter" games, that had this effect, as opposed to strategy or role-playing games, the study authors found.

The researchers had one set of subjects play the first-person shooter games Unreal Tournament 2004 and Call of Duty, while control subjects played The Sims, a strategic game meant to simulate life.

Both groups were then asked to perform visual and auditory tasks that tested decision-making skills. One task involved observing an array of dots in motion and trying to detect their primary direction of movement. Another asked the subjects to don headphones and listen through white noise to figure out which ear was receiving a tone signal.

Action video gamers displayed superior decision-making ability in terms of speed, and their responses were no less accurate than the other players' responses. These findings held true for diehard video game players as well as non-gamers recruited to play action video games for 50 hours.

The research team chalks up the enhanced decision-making skills to the action games' unpredictability. Because players never know what might happen next, they learn to absorb information from their surroundings quickly and employ it to make snap judgments.

"The games are teaching them to learn how to learn, to learn how to solve new tasks rapidly," Green said.

Exactly what neural processes come into play is still unclear, the researchers said, but this type of training potentially has broad applications. For example, people suffering from vision problems could be taught to better assess the world around them by playing video games that improve their perception, Green said.

Research on video games often focuses on worrisome behavior, such as whether players develop aggression. "The negative effects of video games are often a big topic of conversation, but it is important to recognize that video game play can have benefits," said Art Markman, a cognitive scientist at the University of Texas. "Studies like this are one example. There is also work showing that games with pro-social messages where the players engage in adventures to help others can increase helping behavior in players."

However, gamers should keep in mind that they may receive mixed messages from the action video games they play, Markman added.

"It takes a fair amount of video game play to improve decision-making. If this time is put in on games that are aggressive, then there is pretty solid evidence that these aggressive behaviors can spill out into people's behavior in general," Markman said.

"In addition, the time spent playing video games could also be spent on other activities," he noted. "Once kids start playing video games, for example, they read less often, they spend less time on homework, and their grades go down. So, the benefits of video game play do come at a cost."

More information

The U.S. Department of Health and Human Services has tips for parents who want to balance electronics usage and family time.

Posted: September 2010


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