Thursday, October 13, 2011

The positive effect of action video games: Speed of visual processing

Periodically, I like to look at the effects of video games on thinking.  A few months ago, I posted a blog entry on the influence of video games on kids’ grades.  In the months after getting a video game system, kids show a drop in their grades.

I like to be even-handed, though, and so I want to talk about a positive influence of playing action video games on thinking.  There is growing evidence that playing action video games increases people’s ability to process visual information quickly and to make decisions based on that information.

Action video games are the ones in which there is a lot of activity on the screen, and the player has to take quick action in these situations.  Many of these action video games are Halo, Grand Theft Auto, and Call of Duty are violent.  The action has to be taken so that the player can avoid being killed in the game.

A paper in the December, 2009 issue of Current Directions in Psychological Science by Matthew Dye, Shawn Green, and Daphne Bavelier looked at differences between people who play video games extensively (at least 5 hours a week) and those who play rarely if ever.  They first analyzed 89 studies from a range of experimental tasks that required people to do things like search for a target shape on a computer screen or to quickly identify shapes on a screen in different conditions. 

They found that video game players were much faster to perform these tasks than non video game players.  One way you could be faster in any task, of course, is just to sacrifice accuracy for speed.  You could respond quickly, but be willing to get some number of answers wrong.  That is not what is happening here.  Video game players are just as accurate as non-video game players in these tasks, they are just faster.

Maybe this is a bias in the sample of people tested.  Perhaps those people who play video games a lot are the ones who happen to be able to do things quickly.  After all, if you tend to be slow in making decisions, you probably won’t have much fun being blown up regularly in games like Halo. 

To address this possibility, the authors also reviewed a number of studies in which people who were not video game players were either assigned to play action video games for 50 hours over 9 weeks or to play entertaining non-action games for 50 hours.  Later, all of these experiment participants performed visual experiments like searching for patterns on a screen.  In this training study, the non-video game players who played action games ended up being able to perform these tasks faster than the ones who played other games.  These studies suggest that there is something about action video games that speeds people’s ability to process and use visual information.

Finally, you might think that these action video games just make you more impulsive.  That is, perhaps people who play video games just respond very fast to all information on a screen.  That doesn’t seem to be true either.  The authors also reviewed a study in which there were some trials where items on the screen signaled that you were not supposed to respond.  Video game players were also quite good at keeping themselves from responding when that was appropriate. 

So, video games don’t make people trigger-happy, they just make people faster at processing and using visual information.  There are some tangible benefits to playing action video games after all.