Call of Duty or Tetris? The cognitive payoff of some video games

Jason Finley

Video games both challenge and entertain us.  We play them for fun, and the more we play the better we get.  But might the skills we develop while gaming transfer to other activities?  This has been an increasingly hot research question in recent years, with an industry of “brain training” games willing to race ahead of the science, as we have noted earlier on this blog.

One approach to the question is to compare how well experienced gamers versus non-gamers do on a variety of laboratory tasks. An even better way is to compare non-gamers randomly assigned to either play a bunch of video games or not.

But we first need to recognize that video/computer games come in many varieties, and thus can vary in the kinds of skills they may build. A puzzle game such as Tetris requires different skills from a first-person shooter action game such as Halo or Call of DutyA recent article by researcher Claire Hutchinson and colleagues in the Psychonomic Bulletin & Review investigates how first-person shooter video games can influence one particular aspect of performance, namely response selection, on an unrelated laboratory task.

First-person shooter action games provide engaging fast-paced experiences in which you must: perceive stimuli (hostile aliens, soldiers, lasers, etc.), select a response (shoot, switch weapons, run for cover, etc.), and execute that response by pressing the appropriate button on the controller.  That’s just a simplified conceptualization of gameplay.

Often, you’re also navigating through hazardous terrain, communicating with teammates, monitoring your character’s health and ammunition, and scanning the environment for threats.  This rich assemblage of tasks could conceivably strengthen a variety of cognitive skills, so it makes sense for researchers to investigate specific aspects of performance in simple laboratory transfer tasks.

Hutchinson and colleagues investigated the effect of action video game training on the response selection stage of performance in such a task.  First I’ll tell you about the video game training part of their experiment, and then I’ll tell you about the transfer task.

Seventy-five student participants who said they had no prior experience playing video games were randomly assigned to one of four groups:

  • Group A played Call of Duty 3: Modern Warfare on the Xbox 360 console for an hour a day for 10 days. Example gameplay footage is here (if you do not like violence, don’t bother clicking).
  • Group B played Call of Duty 3: Modern Warfare: Defiance on the Nintendo DS handheld console for an hour a day for 10 days.  Example gameplay footage here, from an emulator.
  • Group C played a simple non-action game called Sight Training on the Nintendo DS handheld console for an hour a day for 10 days. Example gameplay footage here, again from an emulator.
  • Group D, the control group, played no games for the same time period.

The idea was to have everyone do a simple laboratory transfer task once just before the training period, and once on the day after it ended. That way we can see: (a) if the two action game groups improve on the transfer task at all, and (b) if they improve more than the non-action game group or the no-game control group.

So here’s what happens in that transfer task: You sit at a computer and watch the screen until a square appears.  If it’s a red square, you quickly press a key with your right hand; if it’s a green square, you quickly press a key with your left hand.  This is repeated many times.  Here’s the twist though: any square could appear on the left side of the screen or the right side of the screen. Research has shown that you’ll tend to be a little slower to respond when the square is on the opposite side of the correct response, for example when a red square (right hand!) appears on the left side of the screen, an “incongruent trial”.  This slowdown is known as the Simon Effect, named after researcher J. Richard Simon (unrelated to the game Simon).

One way to think about this task is to decompose it into stages: (a) first you have to perceive the square; (b) then you have to select the correct response, based on your memory of the rules; (c) finally you have to execute the response you selected.  The challenge of the task is during the selection stage: on incongruent trials there’s a conflict between your default tendency to react in the direction of a stimulus and the rule that you should react based on the color of the square and not its spatial location. Resolving this conflict takes up attentional resources, slowing you down relative to the congruent trials.

So what were the results?  Before the game training period, participants in all four groups showed the expected Simon Effect: their reaction time was slower on the incongruent trials than the congruent trials, by about 50 milliseconds.

Here’s the key result: after the training period, the Simon Effect got smaller, but only for the two action game groups (Call of Duty), not for the non-action game group (Sight Training) and not for the no-game control group. The figure below illustrates those results:

Note that there is a difference between the solid and dotted lines (pre and post training, respectively) for the Call of Duty conditions (top panels), but that difference is smaller or absent for the Sight Training group and the no-game control group (bottom panels).

So, experience playing an action game appears to improve your skill at a particular task component: rapidly selecting an appropriate response to incoming stimuli even when spatial information conflicts with other information.

This finding adds one piece to the puzzle of how video games can affect our skills.  It’s a complex puzzle, so we shouldn’t be hasty in speculating about real-world applications or treatment of disorders. I think it represents progress that we’re investigating the effects of particular kinds of games. Different games make different demands on players, and first-person shooter action games are just one genre. Real-time strategy games (e.g., Starcraft) are another genre, and could conceivably influence a different set of cognitive skills.  But the panoply of video games is diverse enough that a simple taxonomy based on genre may be inadequate.  We need to better understand games to better understand how they affect us.

In my view, video games constitute a flourishing interactive medium that is capable of a tremendous range of art, story-telling, exploration, discovery, social interaction, and sport. Gaming’s influence on cognitive skills is just one facet of what this medium offers. Game on!

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