Lifelong experience with video gaming confers enhanced cognitive benefits

Video games have gotten a bad rap. When googling “do video games”, the first results Google suggests are “rot your brain”, “make you dumber”, and then finally “make you smarter.” As far as the last option is concerned, evidence seems to be accumulating that shows that gaming does enhance visual processing and cognitive control skills. Previously on the Psychonomic Society’s blog, we have covered that people who play Tetris learn transferrable spatial orientation skills and Rockband or Guitar Hero can help you play music. In addition, a number of labs have found that strategic games like first-person shooters or other games requiring spatial navigation skills (like the Fallout series or Call of Duty) lead to better multitasking ability.

Many tasks require multitasking, such as alternating between different media regularly, or speaking multiple languages. Researchers have found that not all kinds of multitasking are created equal. In other posts we have talked about how lifelong experience affects visual processing, so signers process signed languages differently from non-linguistic visual information, thereby freeing up processing resources.

One of the most striking benefits of video game playing is its ability to train multitasking skills. Multitasking is sometimes broken into a couple categories, such as the ability to switch between tasks and also the ability to monitor (or mix) several tasks at once. Sometimes, training can lead to benefits in one domain but not in others, an issue which has led to a lot of controversy within cognitive control and training research. Training using video games or other cognitively challenging tasks can improve performance on similar tasks (near transfer), though whether this happens for less similar tasks (far transfer) is controversial.

As we have discussed before, individual differences can tell a different story that is not reflected in the average performance across individuals.

Experience has been an important factor in other cognitive tasks, so a new study published in the Psychonomic Society’s journal Attention, Perception and Psychophysics by Hartanto, Toh and Yang looked at whether different types of cognitive benefits were a function of how long video game players had been playing games. Most earlier research had not looked at whether those who started playing six months before coming into the lab were different from lifelong video game players because researchers had categorized players solely based on their self-reported gaming habits.

To look at lifelong versus recent experience with games, Hartanto and colleagues split up pre- and post-adolescent gamers because of the huge changes that take place during puberty, creating early and late video game players (called EVGP and LVGP, respectively). Hartanto and colleagues then compared these two groups to non video game players (NVGP) while measuring mixing and switching costs in multi-tasking.

Mixing and switching require different sets of skills. Switch costs reveal the difficulty associated with changing tasks, but mixing requires monitoring what tasks must be completed. Mixing costs, by contrast, are the ability to keep in mind that tasks will change, or the slowdown associated with having to complete multiple tasks. Mixing costs, unlike switch costs, tend to increase with age starting from the early 20s.

To test whether switch and mix costs were affected by video gaming experience, the study used a classic task switching paradigm, followed by a survey of gaming habits, background, and nonverbal fluid intelligence. Participants in each of the three groups—EVGP, LVGP, and NVGP—were matched for socioeconomic status and fluid intelligence. The task switching paradigm was a color or shape test, in which participants had to either classify shapes (circle or triangle) or colors (red or green), with the stimuli being either red triangles and green circles. That is, an identical stimulus would be classified either by its shape or by its color, depending on what task was applicable to the particular trial.

The experiment was broken into blocks of pure shape responses only, pure color responses, and mixed blocks, in which participants were told about the relevant task for each trial. The required response sometimes differed between successive trials and sometimes stayed the same.

Switch costs were defined as the slowdown in reaction time that occurred when a task switched from one trial to the next, compared to a pair of trials involving the same task. Mixing costs were defined as the reaction time differences between mixed blocks and pure blocks. Because switch costs tend not to differ with age, Hartanto and colleagues predicted that lifelong video game players would be better at switching between tasks, but that both EVGP and LVGP would better handle the global task demands than NVGP.

Hartanto and colleagues found that for both switching and mixing costs, the EVGP group did better than their NVGP counterparts. When lumping together both early and late video game players, the study found that the earlier the participant started playing video games, the better they monitored the two tasks (i.e. showed small mixing costs). In addition, gamers were slightly better at task switching than NVGP.

Why might a lifetime of experience with video games have helped with task switching? First of all, task switching may simply benefit from the additional time to master. Additionally, the human brain is highly plastic in adolescence, which could have led to prioritizing developing skills as the early video game players grew older. Hartanto and colleagues also cite a study that found that video game players who started playing games before the age of 10 process visual information earlier than non video game players, which could in turn lead to initiating task switching earlier.

Nonetheless, if you only just now started playing, there’s some good news—you can still reap some of the cognitive benefits! It even seems possible that video games might be used in interventions to improve children’s executive function and to prevent cognitive decline among the elderly.

Article focused on in this post:

Hartanto, A., Toh, W. X., & Yang, H. (2016). Age matters: The effect of onset age of video game play on task-switching abilities. Attention, Perception, & Psychophysics78, 1125-1136. DOI:10.3758/s13414-016-1068-9.

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