Computer Gaming = Mental Training?

A mental trainer.

Computer gaming often gets a bad press. It gets linked to brutal murders (school shootings in Columbine, US  and Winnenden, Germany , the massacre on Utoya and in Oslo, Norway ), gang culture, physical decline and death, brain degeneration, and low productivity. Susan Greenfield, a neurophysiologist and something of a celebrity scientist in the UK, links them to aggression, recklessness, and a decline in prosocial behaviour. However, there is also a growing literature on cognitive benefits resulting from the mental training provided by ordinary computer games. How good is the evidence for these positive side effects of being hooked on a video game?
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The start of the ‘computer gaming=mental training’ argument can be traced back to an article published in Nature in 2003. In it, Green and Bavelier claimed to have found evidence for bigger and better attentional resources in video game players compared to non-players. For example, in one task participants were asked to count squares briefly flashed on a screen. There are two ways to solve this task: subitizing, i.e. immediately ‘seeing’ the right number as after having rolled a die, and counting. Video game players could subitize more items than non-players. However, some may argue that perhaps only people with better attention get drawn to computer games in the first place. Green and Bavelier (2003) addressed this issue by training people for one hour a day over ten days on either Medal of Honor – an action game – or Tetris – a control game. Only the action game trained participants’ visual attention improved. The conclusion appears clear: forget about tedious, commercial brain trainers, play action games to boost your attention abilities.
However, has the effect stood the test of time? Last year Boot and colleagues reviewed the literature and reported that researchers found out that gamers are superior to non-gamers in terms of various mental faculties: mental rotation, visual acuity, decision making, etc. Studies finding a relation greatly outnumber those which don’t. Furthermore, training studies are rarer but generally also find positive associations between action game ‘training’ and many of the aforementioned cognitive abilities. It looks like it is time to write a letter to all the fear mongers who link action video gaming to all sorts of social problems … not so fast.

Would you notice the difference to a mental trainer?

Has the effect stood the test of science? Even though the aforementioned studies were published in reputable scientific journals and apparently stood the test of time Boot and colleagues (2011) are critical of the claims of the ‘computer gaming=mental training’ field. For starters, most studies compare gamers to non-gamers and with this approach you never know what caused what (e.g., people get trained by computer games, or superior people get drawn to computer games) or whether giving people the feeling of being an expert already enhances their performance.
The latter criticism also applies to training studies. In clinical trials of new medications, participants are not aware what condition they are in – whether they receive the real pill or the sugar pill. In game training studies, on the other hand, participants always know the game they are playing, obviously. Why would this be a problem? Tetris involves mental rotation but does not involve attentional demands. Medal of Honor in many ways is the reverse. If you were a participant and told to predict which training would benefit attentional abilities, what would you say? Just the expectation of improvement may drive the observed changes, i.e. a placebo effect. In sum, there currently isn’t very convincing evidence for the ‘computer gaming=mental training’ account.
Still, the accumulated evidence is at least suggestive of real cognitive improvements. So, instead of looking in fear at brain washed gaming geeks on the verge of violent outbursts, we should perhaps envy them for their superior mental abilities.
One moment. There is still the issue of those negative side effects. There, it turns out that a recent review by Hall and colleagues (2011) found the literature to be split between studies claiming a gaming-aggression link and those that do not. Even meta-analyses on this issue do not agree with each other. Furthermore, there are also substantial methodological issues in this field (Adachi and Willoughby, 2011).
My message to gamers: game on.
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Adachi, P.J.C., & Willoughby, T. (2011). The effect of violent video games on aggression: Is it more than just the violence? Aggression and Violent Behaviour, 16, 55-62. doi:10.1016/j.avb.2010.12.002
Boot, W.R., Blakely, D.P., & Simons, D.J. (2011). Do action video games improve perception and cognition? Frontiers in Psychology, 2,1. doi: 10.3389/fpsyg.2011.00226
Green, C.S., & Bavelier, D. (2003). Action video game modifies visual selective attention. Nature, 423, 534-537. doi:10.1038/nature01647
Hall, R.C.W., Day, T., & Hall, R.C.W. (2011). A Plea for Caution: Violent Video Games, the Supreme Court, and the Role of Science. Mayo Clinical Proceedings, 86, 315-321. doi:10.4065.mcp.2010.0762

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