Are Action Video Games Changing your Child's Brain?

Health & Wellness on 04.30.12
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Image: JD Hancock/CC BY 2.0

Researchers at the University of Toronto provide the first evidence that playing an action video game causes detectable changes in brain activity, even when played for short periods.Their study of people who previously had never played video games (where did they find them?) compared brain activity between players of action games and players of a three-dimensional puzzle game.

Action Games versus Puzzle Games

The study, led by psychology professor Ian Spence, examined twenty-five subjects. Sixteen played a first-person shooter game while nine served as controls, playing a logical game without the fast-action component. Subjects played video games for one or two hour sessions, playing ten hours in total.

Scientists recorded the participants' brain waves while they were trying to find a visual object moving in a wide field full of visual distractions. Measurements were taken both before and after gaming.

Sijing Wu, a PhD student working with Spence and lead author of the study, says:

After playing the shooter game, the changes in electrical activity were consistent with brain processes that enhance visual attention and suppress distracting information.

Other studies have shown that action gamers display superior visual attention, but could not rule out that a preference for focusing on visual tasks causes people to be drawn to action gaming. The Toronto study demonstrates enhanced visual accuity in direct consequence to action gaming, while simultaneously showing that other games do not have the same effect.

Is This a Good Thing?

Enhanced visual attention plays an important role in many daily tasks. Would there be fewer traffic accidents if cars were programmed to prevent ignition until the driver completes a short high-speed obstacle course game? Could an hour of action video gaming take sports to a whole new level (or do athletes already have finely trained visual centers in their brains, as a consequence of real-life "action gaming"?)

It certainly explains something I like to call the "penguin slide" phenomenon, in which players go flying wildly off the penguin slide the first few times they attempt the game but very quickly obtain the sense that things are going more slowly as they learn to steer their way successfully to the bottom of the slide. (If you have not played, the game goes exactly as it sounds: you are the penguin, swooshing ever faster down a curvy slide. You probably have experienced the effect in other action games you have played, as well.)

A lot of questions remain unanswered: are the brain change effects permanent? If not, how often must the action game be played to reactivate the visual cortex? If the brain focuses more on visual information, does it reduce the ability to learn or be creative? Can a careful balance of action games with learning games create a super-brain?

And perhaps most important of all: what about hop-scotch, skipping rope, freeze tag, or musical chairs? Don't let the games of our childhood be lost while seeking to foster super-brains with computer games: these old-fashioned games have been proven to be as valuable, or more, in the formative years of the next generation.

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