Put down that Xbox remote: Researcher suggests video games may not boost cognition

Put down that Xbox remote: FSU researcher suggests video games may not boost cognition
This is Daniel Blakely, FSU psychology doctoral student and Walter Boot, assistant professor in FSU's Department of Psychology. Credit: Florida State University

Wouldn't it be nice if all those hours kids spent glued to their PlayStation 3, Xbox 360 or Nintendo DS video games actually resulted in something tangible? Better grades, perhaps? Improved concentration? Superior driving skills?

Over the past decade, many studies and news media reports have suggested that action video games such as Medal of Honor or Unreal Tournament improve a variety of perceptual and . But in a paper published this week in the journal Frontiers in Psychology, Walter Boot, an assistant professor in Florida State University's Department of Psychology, critically reevaluates those claims.

Together with FSU psychology doctoral student Daniel Blakely and University of Illinois collaborator Daniel Simons, Boot lays out what he believes is a persuasive argument that much of the work done over the past decade demonstrating the benefits of play is fundamentally flawed.

"Despite the hype, in reality, there is little solid evidence that games enhance cognition at all," he said.

The authors make the case that a number of influential studies supporting the superior skills of action gamers suffer from a host of methodological flaws. Many of those studies compared the of frequent gamers to non-gamers and found gamers to be superior. However, Boot and his coauthors point out that this doesn't necessarily mean that their game experience caused better perceptual and cognitive abilities. It could be that individuals who have the abilities required to be successful gamers are simply drawn to gaming.

Researchers looking for cognitive differences between expert and novice gamers often recruit research participants by circulating ads on college campuses seeking "expert" video game players. That wording alone, Boot argues, "lets participants know how researchers expect them to perform on challenging, often game-like computer tests of cognition."

Media reports on the superior skills of gamers heighten gamers' awareness of these expectations. Even studies in which non-gamers are trained to play action video games have their own problems, often in the form of weak control groups, according to Boot and his coauthors.

Boot, who grew up playing video games, said at first he was excited about research that claimed playing action video games could enhance basic measures of attention. He and his fellow researchers conducted their own video-game training study to determine what other abilities might improve following video game play, but they were unable to replicate the training benefits found in earlier studies.

"The idea that video games could enhance cognition was exciting because it represented one of the few cases in which cognitive training enhanced abilities that weren't directly practiced," Boot said. "But we found no benefits of video game training." Not only did some of his studies fail to replicate those earlier findings, but "no study has yet met the 'gold standard' methods necessary in intervention studies of this sort."

In fact, certain methodological problems appeared again and again in the studies that Boot and Blakely and reviewed. Even more important than identifying flaws of previous studies, Blakely said, their new paper outlines a series of best practices for researchers who want definitive answers on the potential benefits of video .

Boot and Blakely haven't entirely written off video games as a way to boost perceptual and cognitive abilities; in fact, they're still open to the possibility. But before they start recommending video game interventions as a means to improve perception and cognition for kids, adults and senior citizens, they say more evidence is necessary.

"If people are playing games to improve their cognition, they may be wasting their time," Boot said. "Play games because you enjoy them, not because they could boost your brain power."

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Sep 15, 2011
It could be that individuals who have the abilities required to be successful gamers are simply drawn to gaming.


there seems to be something genetic or cultural involved in some cases.

The Korean dominance of the professional gaming, particularly Real Time Strategy, strongly suggests genetics or culture is involved in producing people who are both interested and able to excell at a game genre. In Korea, a Starcraft tournament is like the Super Bowl in the U.S.

I do know it takes a very smart and very dedicated person to play Starcraft above the casual noob skill level, and more so than almost any other video game.

The skill gap in Starcraft between A pro and F- "worse than a computer" noob is about as far as the difference between Usain Bolt and a quadrapelegic.

I was considered "c-" by the pros, but was at the top of the second highest league, and regularly beat players half way up the top league.

Sep 15, 2011
But these studies would be very hard to do.

The letter ranking is logarithmic. I might have been "c-", but I was significantly better than about 95% of all players, and could legitimately win 1vs2 or even 1vs3 players just one league lower than my self...

My cousin and I used to join 4vs4 games back in the late 1990's and backstab our two allies, and then still beat the 4 opponents 2vs4, but that was before "Boxer" and the koreans and the pro gaming scene. They are just incredible really...

In order to legitimately play a game like Starcraft at the "expert" level you have to REALLY play it and research and exploit every stat, mechanic, bug, timing, etc, etc. It's like Chess. You have to actually practice all build orders and openings for all matchups and find out what works and when you should use it. And you have to improvise for every new map or patch...

Honestly, casual gamers do not have the intelligence or patience to do that.

Sep 15, 2011
The other thing is, different maps in Starcraft force different unit balance and different strategies, and really totally change the way the game goes, even if it's the same race matchup.

Unlike Chess, which has finite number of openings, you could play 50 games of Starcraft, even on the same map and even with the same race matchup, and yet never have it go exactly the same way, especially in 2vs2 games.

Then there's micromanagement.

When the game first came out, gamers complained about the Terran Race, my self included. it was believed they were teh "weakest" race. Gamers even asked Blizzard to replace the Vulture bikes with something that was "Less useless".

But as people's understanding of the game improved, it was discovered that Terran was probably slightly BETTER than the other 3 races, and Vulture bikes were actually one of the best units in the game...It got to the point that for TvT and Tvprotoss almost nothing got made by the T any more except vultures and tanks!

Sep 15, 2011
But that shows how big the skill gap can be, and how big the learning curve is.

to a noob, they thing that massing capital air is the best strategy, and vulture bikes are "useless," because they don't have the skill, timing, or micromanagement abilities to understand how to use the other units.

To a pro, capital air is nearly useless, because it's too late on the tech tree, too vulnerable, and too centralized of your resources, but vulture bikes, tanks, goliaths(anti-air,) and transports are the only thing worth making, at least for TvT and TvP...

I'm rambling, but I think this shows that being intelligent makes you a good gamer, along with a hell of a lot of practice, and not the other way around.

Sep 15, 2011
I have not doubt at all that video games boost cognitive abilities. If nothing else, they definitely increase your ability to quickly scan a screen for key items and react to them, which is a useful skill to me in the computer field. And Strategy Games? Come on, you have to use your brain the whole time, manage resources, solve problems, and improve processes. How can that NOT boost cognition? Not to mention that every game you play has a LEARNING CURVE, as in you must LEARN IT. Doesnt learning in ANY FORM boost cognitive ability? Anyone who questions whether video games boost cognition does not play video games, or else they wouldn't ask such a silly question!

Sep 15, 2011
you are making me want to log back into SC2 when I get home from my physics class this afternoon. I was diamond league when I quit, about the time they added the league above it. The algorithms Blizzard uses take a lot into account when ranking you and placing you in leagues. SC is addicting though, I had to quit because every time I would go to sleep and close my eyes, I would immediately envision a game starting and working on my build order. The first 5 minutes can make or break you ^_^

Sep 15, 2011
...I had to quit because every time I would go to sleep and close my eyes, I would immediately envision...

I quit FPSs for the exact same reason. Trying to mitigate PTSD symptoms and fast action violence do not mix, apparently. Who would have thought? haha

Sep 15, 2011
um... ya. I wouldn't bother with that sorta thing if I had PTSD. FPSs aren't my sort of thing though, I prefer the RTS so I can control the out come of entire skirmishes rather than just one on one encounters. That way I don't feel like I'm the one getting my hands dirty heh.

Sep 15, 2011
SC is addicting though, I had to quit because every time I would go to sleep and close my eyes, I would immediately envision a game starting and working on my build order.

I quit broodwar several times. I even threw it away several times only to repurchase it a few months later, I am ashamed to say.

Honestly, it's that addicting.

The first 5 minutes can make or break you ^_^

Oh definitely.

I used to beat diamond league protosses easily for PvP in SC2.

The only time I lose in SC2 it happens in the first 5 minutes.

If I get in the "early mid game," I get a free win for PvP and PvZ anyway. With like one exception, my opponents always quit after my first attack, because even if they stop me, it's usually impossible for them to recover and counter attack.

PvT is annoying as hell though, and usually takes like 35 or 40 minutes to win...

I play one base, low economy protoss, at least in PvP and PvZ. Never needed an expand except 1 game...

Sep 15, 2011
I used to get a lot of wins against 5 gate protosses.

My basic build was:
2 gates, 1 robo, 1 starport.

This gives a lot of flexibility and "one-off" tech options as well.

Huk used 5 gate protoss a lot, but I never played anyone THAT good, so I guess the guys I played weren't good enough micro.

Honestly, haven't played in a while, so don't know how the matchups have evolved since then.

But 1 base protoss pretty much beats 2 base protoss easy. The fast expand Nexus is too easy to kill with stalkers and an immortal or two...

Sep 15, 2011
Gosh, you guys really like Starcraft. Its pretty cool, but I feel like I am forced to do the same thing very fast at the beginning of every battle. Its more stressful and hectic than it is fun. I like playing the computer, but in PvP, people are too serious about it.

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