School Climate & Safety

Playing High-Action Video Games May Speed Up Learning, Studies Say

By Sarah D. Sparks — November 13, 2014 4 min read
Xbox fans play games from the popular “Halo” franchise at HaloFest in Los Angeles earlier this week.
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Contrary to the popular stereotype of a distracted teenager lost in Halo or Call of Duty video games, new evidence suggests playing such high-action video games may help students learn and react faster—but not more impulsively.

The new findings run counter to recent studies that have linked extensive video game playing to attention-deficit and impulsiveness disorders, stoking concerns that playing highly stimulating video games reduces students’ ability to pay attention in less-stimulating academic settings.

“Certainly, there’s a sense that action video games have been a disruptive technology in terms of capturing the attention of students,” said Daphne Bavelier, the director of the Rochester Center for Brain Imaging, in Rochester, N.Y., in a symposium this month at the International Mind, Brain, and Education Society meeting here.

But, she argued, much of the cautionary research focuses on “pathological” game players—and regular but not obsessive playing of action games does not lower students’ ability to pay attention. In fact, she and University of Toronto psychologists Davood G. Gozli and Jay Pratt argue that game playing can improve students’ attention control.

For example, in a new study previewed from the December issue of the journal Human Movement Science, Ms. Bavelier and colleagues found that those who play action video games learned new sensory-motor skills faster than nonplayers did.

The researchers asked action-video game players and nonplayers to use a computer mouse to follow a moving target on screen in complicated, repeating patterns. Both groups improved over the course of the session, but action-game players improved significantly more, and were more accurate at following the pattern closely.

However, in a second session, in which the target constantly changed patterns, players and nonplayers followed equally well, suggesting that it was not so much that players simply had faster hand-eye coordination, but that they learned new spatial and movement rules more quickly.

“Gamers really are better learners,” Ms. Bavelier said. “These people come to a task and very fast learn what are the task requirements, suppress any distractions, and focus on the task at hand. It’s not that they have better vision acuity; it’s that they learn to have better vision acuity.”

The study is part of an ongoing series of experiments, in which Ms. Bavelier and her colleagues have found those playing action video games develop better attention and inhibitory control, allowing them to identify important information in highly distracting environments, and to plan and control their reactions much more tightly.

All of the Brain

An action game is “a massive assault on all parts of brain function,” she said. “You are analyzing a very complicated visual field and auditory field at the same time. “You are making decisions on multiple time scales ... Extremely complicated decisionmaking.”

In a related study, the researchers found gamers learned new language twice as fast as nongamers. After 20 minutes of exposure to made-up speech, gamers identified vocabulary words in the unfamiliar sounds, a task that took nongamers 40 minutes.

Clearly people are getting better at playing action video games,” Ms. Bavelier said, “but they are also getting better at other tasks in the lab that have a quite different flavor.” These include perception, attention, task-switching, and the ability to mentally rotate objects, a skill associated with higher math and geometry performance.

Old and New Measures

A student who reacts quickly can be at risk of being considered impulsive, but Ms. Bavelier cautioned that educators must look at accuracy as well as speed.

“If you use old norms for impulsivity, they won’t work,” she said. “We’ve had a 15 percent reaction time speed up in the last 10 to 15 years.”

While a reaction time faster than 200 milliseconds for school-age children would have been considered impulsive in the 1990s, the benchmark has dropped to 120 milliseconds today, for example, she said, attributing that change in part to more common game-playing.

In a separate 2010 study in Current Directions in Psychological Science, Ms. Bavelier and other researchers found that adolescents who played action video games had much faster reaction times, but were no less accurate, and performed as well on tests of impulsivity and sustained attention as nonplayers.

That aligns with research by Yuko Munakata, a psychology professor at the University of Colorado at Boulder, who spoke at a separate session during the meeting.

Ms. Munakata argues that, often, educators and parents interpret “inhibition” as stopping or holding back, but a series of brain-imaging studies suggest that “it is actually proactive monitoring of the environment to change what you are doing. It’s not just about clamping down, but monitoring the environment, noticing that the other person is starting to frown and deciding to stop what you are doing.”

That is in line with a separate 2013 study in Psychological Research, which neither Ms. Bavelier nor Ms. Munakata participated in, that found action-game playing improved students’ working memory, but did not affect their impulsiveness. The findings suggest educators and researchers should look beyond the typical content of commercial video games to make more use of their platforms, Ms. Bavelier said.

“So far most of the action video games have been very violent, but you can get the game mechanics embedded in different content,” she added.

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