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Wednesday, September 22, 2010

And my mom thought I was wasting my time.

Those of us who play video games for a hobby have probably heard- many, many times- that we're rotting our brains away. Fortunately, science is here to show otherwise:

Playing shoot-‘em-up, action-packed videogames strengthens a person’s ability to translate sensory information quickly into accurate decisions. This effect applies to both sexes, say psychologist Daphne Bavelier of the University of Rochester in New York and her colleagues, even if females generally shun videogames with titles such as Dead Rising and Counter-Strike.


“What’s surprising in our study is that action games improved probabilistic inference not just for the act of gaming, but for unrelated and rather dull tasks,” Bavelier says.

Unlike slower-paced videogames that feature problems with specific solutions, action videogames throw a rapid-fire series of unpredictable threats and challenges at players. Those who get a lot of practice, say, killing zombies attacking from haphazard directions in a shifting, postapocalyptic landscape pump up their probabilistic inference powers, Bavelier proposes.

Now that sounds interesting: playing action-packed games can actually improve your ability to make quick decisions. But are these gains limited to zombie-related circumstances? Turns out, not so much. They appear to extend to abstract (and arguably quite boring) visual and auditory stimulus discrimination tasks. So, basically, playing Left 4 Dead may improve your ability to decide quickly whether you just heard an alarming sound or something you shouldn't worry about. And for any of you who think about causation, take a look at this:

Some gamers may have superior probabilistic inference skills to begin with, but an additional experiment indicates that playing action games amplifies an ability to analyze sensory information, Bavelier says.

Her team randomly assigned seven men and seven women to play two action videogames for a total of 50 hours, with no more than two hours of play per day. Another four men and seven women followed the same rules but played a videogame that involves directing the lives of simulated characters to achieve certain goals.

None of the participants, who averaged 26 years of age, reported having played videogames of any type in the previous year.

Both groups showed marked improvement in game-playing skills after completing the assignment. But action gamers responded markedly faster to dot and noise tasks than did the group that played the simulation game, with comparable accuracy.

In other words, it isn't a selection effect wherein the folks who are good at quick discriminations prefer to play games that require such skills. Instead, it appears that practice with the games actually increases your skill at making such discriminations. I find this, frankly, exciting as hell, because it means that we're one step closer to being able to use games as genuine teaching tools. I look forward to the day when, much as there are both fluffy and profound works of literature, there are fluffy and profound video games- games that teach as well as entertain.

Which brings us to a natural question: what sort of lesson do we think this game might teach us? A game that includes, along with its single-player campaign, a separate story-based campaign that can only be completed with the help of a partner:

Video games can never do what books do. But, then again, books can't do what video games can, and the human experience is richer for having both.

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Blogger Sarahliz said...

Is the cake still a lie?

I actually kind of don't care whether video games improve my skills or not. I just really really really want Portal 2 to come out. That and Dead Rising 2 will make me very happy.

Wednesday, September 22, 2010 11:17:00 AM  

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