Wednesday, December 20, 2017

Maybe Video Games Don’t Help Perceptual Skills


Over the past several years, I have written about a number of studies relating to video games.  It looks like playing video games can distract students from school, which can lead to poorer grades.  Video games can also promote risk taking, which can lead to riskier behavior in life as well.  Although video games may promote somewhat more aggressive behavior in laboratory settings, it has been hard to find any evidence that they lead to more aggressive behavior outside of the lab.
On the positive side, playing prosocial video games can lead to more helping behavior in the lab.  There has been a flurry of studies exploring whether playing video games also helps with thinking skills.
One way that video games might influence thinking is by affecting the way people process their visual world.  A person playing a first-person shooter, for example needs to identify friends and enemies quickly and then make fast decisions based on what they see.
The prospect that playing action video games could improve perception was explored in a paper in the October, 2014 issue of the Journal of Experimental Psychology: General by Don van Ravnzwaaij, Wouter Boekel, Birte Forstmann, Roger Ratcliff, and Eric-Jan Wagenmakers.
In one study, they had three groups of participants.  One group played 20 hours of the action video game Unreal Tournament.  A second group played a non-action game (The Sims).  A third group played no game at all.  The 20 hours of play were spread over six experimental sessions over the course of a week. 
In each session, participants also did a difficult perceptual task in which they had to detect the motion of dots on a screen.  Some proportion of the dots were moving in a consistent direction, while the rest moved randomly.  Participants had to detect the coherent motion of the majority of the dots.  The proportion of dots moving in the same direction was determined at the beginning of the study in order for participants to start the study at about a 75% accuracy level.
Over the course of the study, participants in all groups got faster (and slightly less accurate) at making the judgments of motion.  However, all of the groups improved at the same rate regardless of whether they played a video game or what type of game they played.
In this study and a second one replicating this finding, the authors found no evidence that playing an action video game improves a basic perceptual skill like the ability to detect motion in a particular direction.
One reason that I like this study is that this research group is well-known for careful experimentation and detailed data analysis.  When exploring complex phenomena like the influence of video games on learning, it is valuable to have experimenters who are careful in their research.
Of course, the results from this one paper do not argue that video games cannot improve more complex skills.  But, this finding is valuable in suggesting that whatever improvements video games may provide, they do not reach all the way down to the most basic aspects of visual perception.  More research will be needed to explore the kinds of thinking abilities that video game play may improve.

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