Australasian Science: Australia's authority on science since 1938

The Emerging Potential of Video Games

Credit: hobbymb/ http://tinyurl.com/hd3u2pp

Credit: hobbymb/ http://tinyurl.com/hd3u2pp

By Aaron Kandola

A growing body of research is finding that video games stimulate the brain, but are the skills acquired transferable and is violence in games really an issue?

Every year, video games grow in sophistication, accessibility and popularity. It’s almost impossible to recognise the influence of early arcade and console video games that became popular in the 1970s and 1980s in the immersive complexity of modern video games like Call of Duty or Diablo.

It’s not surprising that 68% of Australians play video games for an average of almost 1.5 hours per day, according to a Digital Australia report published this year (http://tinyurl.com/j3rhj6z). Modern video games have encapsulated our imaginations through the Hollywood-style cinematics, dynamic virtual environments and intricate storylines of games like Metal Gear Solid to the daringly simple yet strategically demanding gameplay adopted by app-based games like Angry Birds.

Concerns have been raised about the intense relationship we have developed with video games. It’s difficult not to wonder what else could be achieved if those 10–11 hours per week were spent playing sport or mastering a new language.

The average young person spends around 10,000 hours on video gaming by the age of 21 – enough time to earn two bachelors degrees. However, research is beginning to challenge the perception that gaming provides us with little more than a means of entertainment. Playing certain types of video games may actually have some surprising benefits for our brains.

Training the Brain
You would be hard-pressed to find anyone who disagreed with the notion of “practice makes perfect” or, at the very least, practising a task will eventually lead to improvements in the performance of that task. This truism also applies to our brains. From computerised brain-training games like Luminosity to more traditional puzzles like Sudoku, humans have long favoured the idea that repeatedly challenging ourselves using such cognitive tasks will train our brain to maintain or gradually improve its functioning.

The logic of training our brain like a muscle is intuitively appealing and, on the surface, brain training paradigms appear to be somewhat successful. Extensively practising a task, such as memorising different sets of words, will improve your capacity to accurately remember those words, but this is essentially where the buck stops. While you may be better at recalling this list of words, these tasks do not necessarily improve your overall memory capacity.

The benefits of training on one task are typically not seen in other tasks within the same domain, even if the new task is conceptually very similar to the highly practised task. For example, if our memory capacity had improved we would expect that other tasks relying on memory would also be improved.

The inability to transfer the benefits of training on a specific task into other related tasks has been demonstrated across a range of domains from perception to motor control, and suggests that such brain-training paradigms do not improve functioning or are useful in a real-world setting.

Training the Brain Using Video Games
In contrast to other brain-training paradigms, video games are typically not designed by brain scientists to enhance cognitive capacities; they are designed by game developers whose primary objective is to entertain their audience. Yet individuals who regularly play certain video games perform better on a range of cognitive tasks than non-gamers. Research suggests that as little as 10–20 hours of video gaming can improve performance on tasks of attention, perception or executive control (http://tinyurl.com/gscweov). While genres such as strategy games have been shown to have some cognitive benefits, action games like Call of Duty have been repeatedly demonstrated to have a particularly strong impact on brain function.

Well-designed action video games are inherently taxing across a range of cognitive domains and may represent a transferable form of brain training. Within an action video game, players switch between a highly focused state of attention to deal with transient targets, such as an enemy, to a highly distributed, peripheral attention to respond sufficiently to a dynamic and complex 3D environment all while having to make rapid but accurate decisions. Through extensive practice a player is required to develop strong perceptual, sensorimotor, attentional and higher cognitive skills to compete in such an environment.

Action game-playing not only results in improved performance within the video game, but is transferred to performance on cognitive tasks in highly controlled laboratory settings. Individuals who regularly engage in action video games show enhanced perception, attention, sensorimotor skills and cognitive speed and flexibility. They are better at detecting information relevant to a task, sensing environmental changes, tracking multiple moving objects, mentally manipulating complex shapes, rapidly switching attention between tasks or performing multiple tasks concurrently, and remembering visually presented information. The idea of action video gamers as “trigger happy” appears misplaced given research showing that gamers are able to make perceptual decisions faster than non-gamers while showing the same level of accuracy (http://tinyurl.com/hlfoaas).

Some studies have even suggested that regular video gaming can actually alter the activity and the structure of our brains. In comparison to non-gamers, frequent action video gamers have shown enhanced activity in brain networks that are crucial to attention and perception. Brain regions that are important to processes like spatial navigation, perception and executive functioning have also been shown to be greater in gamers (http://tinyurl.com/hlfoaas). Playing video games from other genres such as platform games (e.g. Super Mario) or logic/puzzle games (e.g. Tetris) have also been associated with greater volumes in brain regions involved in spatial navigation, executive functioning, perception and memory (http://tinyurl.com/jl3z85j; http://tinyurl.com/hang2af).

More Work Is Needed
Studying the impact of gaming on the brain is a relatively new concept, with more questions than answers. The jury is still out as to whether video games are truly beneficial to brain function, with some studies unable to show the cognitive benefits found in the gaming studies above (http://tinyurl.com/h3pdl86).

Furthermore, the majority of the research suggesting that video gaming is associated with improved brain functioning has been cross-sectional (see box, p.20). It may well be that individuals who have good perceptual or attentional skills play more action video games simply because they are better at them and subsequently gain more enjoyment from them. This can bias the results, so more research is required before any firm conclusions may be drawn about the impact of game playing on our cognitive abilities.

There is a growing belief that certain forms of video gaming may have some notable benefits for brain functioning. Should future research continue to demonstrate these benefits, video gaming may have a real-world application that has so far eluded other brain-training paradigms.

Utilising the Benefits of Video Gaming
A range of video games have been specifically developed that require interaction within virtual reality environments, whereby the player can practise real-life skills within the game. These specialised simulator training games closely mirror reality, making it easier for players to directly transfer the skills they acquire within the game to real life, such as in the case of learning to drive or even to fly an aeroplane.

Non-specialised commercial video games like Call of Duty have a less explicit impact than simulator training games that focus on skill acquisition. The effects of commercial video games on brain function are instead represented by small improvements in task performance across various domains like attention or perception. These small improvements in brain functioning can be extremely important in certain situations.

For example, video gaming is increasingly used in the training of young surgeons. Exquisite sensorimotor skills are a necessary component of successfully performing surgical procedures. Trainee surgeons who have experienced a greater exposure to off-the-counter video games tend to become more skilful at performing surgical procedures than those who have had more limited exposure (http://tinyurl.com/9l8dh23). This is particularly true for procedures such as laparoscopic surgery, where fibre-optic instruments are inserted into a patient and manipulated by the surgeon on a video screen. Those with a high exposure to video games may not only have superior sensorimotor skills, but also have more experience completing screen-mediated tasks.

In certain individuals, engaging with video games may have an even stronger impact on brain functioning to an extent that could be therapeutic. Research has began to investigate whether video gaming could aid the improvement of memory, motor skills, facial recognition and social integration in children with autism (http://tinyurl.com/gwg2sbk) or contribute towards the alleviation of attentional deficits in children with attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) (http://tinyurl.com/hgjdu4q).

The therapeutic benefits of video game engagement are not restricted to children, but have also been proposed as a tool to attenuate cognitive decline in older adults (http://tinyurl.com/gscweov). Interestingly, some have even suggested that video games could even be used to assess cognitive performance in conditions like schizophrenia and aid in its diagnosis (http://tinyurl.com/hhz3aaz).

Motivating individuals with disorders like ADHD to regularly attend therapy sessions can be hard work, and it can be even harder to motivate individuals to really engage with therapy to the point where they show clear improvements in behaviour and cognition. Contrastingly, video games are primarily designed to be a highly enjoyable, recreational activity, so a video game-based therapy approach may encourage higher levels of engagement than traditional approaches. Should video gaming fulfil its promise as a therapeutic tool, it may represent an important approach towards mental health treatment in the future.

Whether as an augmentation of professional training or a therapeutic tool, the exciting results that are emerging from video game research is increasingly attracting empirical and clinical attention.

It’s Not all Fun and Games

Concerns have been raised over the impact that regular violent video games have on affective processing and behaviour, particularly for young children. Research suggests that regularly playing violent video games can lead to a desensitisation to violence, more aggressive behaviour, diminished empathy and a decreased likelihood of prosocial behaviour (http://tinyurl.com/gqfapr6).

This is a highly polarised debate, with many conflicting views as to whether these changes exist or whether they are due to factors other than the video game (http://tinyurl.com/hxa384j). It would be inappropriate to promote the therapeutic use of video games if these concerns proved true, particularly in younger and more impressionable individuals.

Some have suggested that excessive video game use could be considered a pathological problem. There are no agreed definitions as to what would characterise an individual who is addicted to video games, but generally it’s considered to consist of excessive use (more than 24 hours per week) at the expense of social or work-related activities. A study published in Psychological Science estimated that 8.5% of the 1178 video game players aged 8–18 years in his study would be classed as addicted to video gaming, and this was associated with lower grades at school and attentional problems (http://tinyurl.com/z7qr5nj).

A video game addiction may seem trivial compared with other mental illnesses or drug addictions, but pathological gamers are at a marginally higher risk of developing worse dis­orders such as depression, anxiety or social phobias (http://tinyurl.com/z6k8erw). More research will certainly be needed to monitor the severity and prevalence of such dangers that may occur as a result of excessive video gaming.

Optimism for the Future of Video Gaming
The phenomenal rise of video gaming has been fascinatingly unique. Revenue from video game sales has dwarfed that of box offices worldwide in recent years. Video games are increasingly viewed as an art form that attracts world-famous actors, directors, artists and composers. Competitive video gaming involves multimillion-dollar tournaments televised on major sports networks like ESPN. A number of nations including the US now allow professional gamers to be classified as athletes, which is testament to the skill, determination and hard work involved in professional video gaming – the best of whom have even attained a celebrity status.

The idea that video gaming could represent a form of mental exercise that benefits our brain function would add yet another level to the video gaming boom we are experiencing. Whether there is an element of truth to this remains to be seen.

Early research has indicated that playing certain genres of video games can be broadly beneficial across a number of domains outside of the game itself. This sets video gaming apart from other forms of brain training in which improvements in performance have not consistently been transferred outside of the original training task.

It’s possible that video gaming may be an enjoyable and in­advertent way in which we fine-tune certain brain functions to improve academic or work-related performance or provide some form of therapy in various conditions. But we must also remain vigilant to the dangers associated with pathological gaming and the impact of violence within video games. Ambiguity shrouds how this form of entertainment will impact our short- and long-term affective processing and behaviour.

As video gaming becomes ever more ingrained in our society, the prospect of utilising its popularity is certainly an exciting avenue for future research. Should we manage to avoid the risks, video games may radically change the way in which some mental illnesses are treated or various training procedures are conducted. We may soon start seeing children being actively encouraged to engage in video gaming as they would a physical sport, or doctors recommending video gaming as they would with a pharmacological medication.

Within the next few years, continued research should provide some answers as to whether such a dramatic shift in perception would be appropriate.


Aaron Kandola is a Research Assistant in the Brain & Mental Health Laboratory of Monash University’s Institute of Cognitive and Clinical Neurosciences.