Tuesday, January 15, 2013

Playing Games

Today in Day 2 of ASB Un-Plugged Impact I've spent the whole day in workshops with Dr Alan Gazzaley.  This morning Dr Gazzaley discussed some really important information about how playing video games impacts on the brain's plasticity.

Here are the facts: 90% of American children and teens play video games - typically for an average of 2 hours a day.  70% of head of households also play video games.  42% of gamers are female (and this is growing).  The average age of a gamer is 37 years old (and this age is increasing)  29% of gamers are over 50 years old.  Consumers spent almost 25 billion dollars on games, hardware and accessories in 2011.  Modern Warfare 3 sold 6.5 million units in first 24 hours of release, and went on to gross $1 billion dollars world wide in the first 16 days.  

This phenomena is only going to increase.  What are the benefits?  Can we harness these as educators?

There are many types of video games:   strategy, fighting, role playing adventure, flight, racing, family, sports, arcade, children's games and so on.  Dr Gazalley concentrated on the impact of a very popular type of game dominated by adolescent males: first person shooter games which use technology the most.  He demonstrated this from a cognitive perspective showing that the players are wearing headsets and are talking to other players who may be located around the world.  They use auditory and visual information and in these games a lot of information is being presented and decision need to be made quickly.  Players need to distribute their attention widely, but it's also very necessary to hone in on things in a very focused way.  Rapid task switching leads to the production of a lot of adrenaline and dopamine.  These games are very immersive.

How do action video games players compare to non-players on lab-based cognitive tasks?
The majority of research makes comparisons between players who game for 4-6 hours per week -v- non players and differences are seen in the following areas:
  • Attention - action game played have better attention abilities and are less distracted.  This is measured using Flanker Tasks - show that non-video game players get more distractible as the games get more difficult.  Video game players have greater attentional capacity.
  •  Field of view - in useful field of view tasks non video game player get 30 - 40 % of this test correct compared with results of 70-80% for video game players.  These results indicate that gamers are better at attending to things on the periphery of field of view.
  • Speed - attentional blink tasks were used to measure this.  Results show that non-players have more problems with quick tasks as it takes their brain more time to recover between each task.  Video game players showed improved scores at all speeds and their brains recovered much faster when doing quick tasks showing more attention.  This study showed there is transfer between video game and these blink tasks which are very different.
  • Tracking multiple objects - non-video game players have more problems tracking multiple objects whereas video game players do better at following more objects as they have a better working memory and are able to hold more information in their minds.
  • Variable attention - tests of variable attention are often used with ADHD students - non-players are slower at identifying infrequent targets though they are just as accurate as gamers.
  • Task Switching - these tests involved rapid switching of colour and shapes.  Video gamers are faster at switching between both manual and vocal tasks.

What is the effect of training the brain of non-gamers?
Non-video game players get better with more practice - even if the practice is only of a simple game such as Tetras - after 10 hours of training.   Even after this short period of time non-gamers show an   extreme improvement in tests such as the useful field of view test and they also improved in both speed and attention.  After 30 hours of training with video games non-gamers also showed better ability to track multiple objects and an improved ability to keep information in their mind.  Dramatic results were shown in females in the useful field of view test.  In general results show that males do better on spatial abilities but in this case female gamers do better than males who are non-players.  This improvement was also sustained after 3 months, even when the females didn't play any more video games.  Results show that after playing games there is no difference between males and females in spatial attention.

Conclusions from the research on training the mind by playing games
Video games enhance all of the following and these effects are still demonstrated after training:
  • attentional capacity
  • distribution of attention
  • speed of attention
  • # of items in attention
  • sustained attention
  • task switching
  • mental rotation of objects
  • multi-tasking
  • change of direction
  • the speed of visual search
  • updating working memory
  • visual short-term memory
Five month after training results are still significant for spatial attention, visual sensitivity and mental rotation, leading to the conclusion that video games have an overwhelming impact on the brain's plasticity.

How do the brains of expert video gamers look different from non-players?
Video game players are more accurate and faster.  The brain doesn't look different as far as focus, but non-gamers show more attention to non-relevant or distracting information.  Video gamers suppress irrelevant information much better - which has an impact on their working memory. Video gamers can deal with greater information load.  They use less cortical areas for more demanding tasks.  They focus more on their task and their brains get better through practice (much in the same way that muscles develop at a gym).  You don't need to learn strategies with action video games, you simply play them and get better.  Strategy games, in fact,  show less of an impact on cognitive abilities than first person shooter games.  Studies have shown that video gamers are good at cognitive tests because they are master learners - they improve faster and learn new environments quicker as they have developed the ability of learning how to learn.

The conclusion from the brain research is that video gaming is doing something profound to the brains of the people who are playing:  video game players have superior cognitive abilities. Having better cognitive control abilities has the potential to transfer to many other areas of life.

Do these results transfer into real world activities?
The results don't indicate that gamers make better decisions for example, but they have better working memory and cognitive control.  However there is more to the real world than just cognitive ability.  Many of these students don't do as well in classrooms as they don't get the same immersion and immediate feedback in schools so see schools as "boring".  

Are video games that contain violence dangerous?
This is a very complicated issue with mixed views from experts on whether violent first person shooter games induce violence and are therefore dangerous.  They are very rewarding to players, so there is also the issue of addictiveness.  In 2011 the US Government in California tried to rate video games so some would have Parental Guidance/Permission on them to restrict them to certain age groups.  After a year of going through the data the conclusion was that exposure to video games did not cause minors to act aggressively when compared with other media such as TV, comic books etc.  California state did not pass this law.

What is it about action video games that makes them so effective in improving cognition?
  • fast paced and unpredictable
  • engaging - brain is more active
  • adaptable difficulty (go up in levels)
  • real-time feedback - error reports and motivating rewards
  • visual and auditory immersion
  • challenge working memory, attention, processing, speed, interference abilities etc.
It's actually incredible that video games improve cognitive abilities since they certainly weren't designed with this in mind - they were designed simply and purely to sell and make money!

The future?
Results from studies of non-gamers have shown great success in training - there are possibilities in the future that these could be used with students with ADHD.  In particular the fact that as you master the game it gets harder and as it gets harder it changes your brain keeps you in the learning zone.   Can this also be done with students with ADHD to encourage greater plasticity in their brains?  Can this be used in future with schizophrenia, Alzheimer's, post traumatic stress disorder, Parkinson's, anxiety disorders, depression, autism and traumatic brain injuries? 

Questions still remaining
What are the ethics behind cognitive enhancement?

Photo Credit: Patrick Hoesly via Compfight cc

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