Playing Action Video Games May Make You Smarter

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Photo: Mike Kemp/Tetra Images/Corbis

There’s a tangled, complicated academic controversy over whether violent video games cause violent or antisocial behavior — one that, while lacking in conclusive evidence, is still somewhat open to debate. But there’s another area of interesting behavioral research into video games that’s also emerging, and it’s doing so in a bit more of an under-the-radar manner: the idea that playing video games, even twitchy mainstream ones, can help with certain types of learning.

The latest evidence comes from an upcoming paper in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences. It’s something of a technical paper, but the main finding is that video-game players are not only better at a type of perceptual processing connected to a variety of learning tasks, but that playing video games appears to cause an improvement in these abilities (one of the groups in the experiment was tasked with playing the action games Unreal Tournament 2004 and Call of Duty 2 for 50 hours, total, over the course of a couple of months).

A key takeaway from this study is that playing action video games improves not just the skills taught in the game, but learning capabilities more generally,” said Vikranth Rao Bejjanki, a postdoctoral researcher at Princeton and one of the study’s co-authors (he was at the University of Rochester at the time of the research). “Previous research by our group and others has shown that playing action video games leads to improvements in a wide range of attentional, perceptual and cognitive skills. In this new study, we show that action gamers excel at a wide range of tasks because they are better learners, and that they become better learners by playing action video games.”

Now, Bejjanki was quick to point out that this is no excuse for bingeing on games — just five hours a week appeared to do the trick, he said. And researchers still have a lot to learn about this stuff — Bejjanki said future studies will, ideally, drill down a lot more deeply into the specifics of how video games affect human perception and learning: “In ongoing research, we are currently engaged in trying to uncover the precise characteristics of action video games that are essential for boosting players’ learning,” said Bejjanki. “So we’re testing the importance of factors such as the amount of variability in the game, the need to make predictions at different time scales, and the pacing of the game.”

Even if there are a lot of unanswered questions, I’m going to take this paper, along with the frigid weather on the way, as an excuse to spend a good chunk of this weekend plopped in front of my laptop shooting virtual monsters. Thanks, science!