100+ studies show action games improve perception, attention and multitasking

Instead of simply accepting video games, is it time we encouraged them?

A metastudy has been newly published by the journal of Technology, Mind and Behaviour that gives a very strong indication that playing action games strengthens some mental functions.

It was found that:

AVGP [action video-game players] were observed to have superior cognitive skills, on average, compared with individuals who engage less in video game play. 

Effects of Action Video Game Play on Cognitive Skills: A Meta-Analysis

The data used to reach this conclusion came from 104 studies that have been published over the last 20 years.

The types of cognitive skills tests where action game players had the biggest advantage were:

  • Perceptual (spot something accurately and quickly)
  • Top-down attentional (stick with a goal to find a target)
  • Spatial (such as mentally rotating objects)
  • Multitasking (switch between goals with less performance sacrifice)

Though it may seem intuitive that a session of playing games might “warm up” a brain, and mean better results in a test taken immediately afterwards, this study avoided looking at only short-term effects:

In line with our focus on long-term training effects (as opposed to acute physiological arousal effects), the training had to be equivalent in both experimental and control groups in terms of duration (minimum 8 hr) and number of sessions (minimum 8 days) and posttest performance measures had to be performed at least 24 hr after training.

Effects of Action Video Game Play on Cognitive Skills: A Meta-Analysis

As this research looked at many studies, there were many different methods for measuring the traits. To give an example of one, a method for measuring “top-down attention” is an object tracking test, which looks like this (try and follow the dot that starts green):

The authors looked at studies that took different experimental approaches: some observed existing players and non-players (cross-sectional study), others gave subjects action games to play and compared the results to a control group (intervention study). The positive relation between playing action games and performance in the cognitive tests was observed in both types of study

My thoughts

I was impressed with the breadth of this research, and the conscientiousness of the authors, who take pains to keep the data reliable and to avoid publication biases and outlier statistics.

There is more I would like to see studied in this area. Do videogames build resilience to failure? What skills do strategy and puzzle games improve? How does game difficulty (perceived and objective) affect the outcomes?

Naturally, I am also curious about what undesirable traits are increased by playing videogames, and where an ideal balance might lie.

What next

Some will read this, pat themselves on the back for their wise choices in gaming material, mouth “I told you so” to the world, then play another round in Dustbowl. But I don’t highlight this research so that gamers can bask in the glow of group superiority. 

Rather, it makes me curious about what roles games might play in benefitting society in the future.

The typical perception today is that games, while an acceptable use of leisure time, are still basically unproductive. This research suggests to me that an hour of videogames is sometimes better than an hour without videogames. 

We recognise the importance of reading and physical education in human development, and parents and schools make time for these activities. Is there room for the right games, deployed in the right way, in schools?

If that is taking things too far, instead of treating games purely as unproductive leisure, can we say that, sometimes, videogames are a form of exercise too? 

My mind is open to these possibilities, though I think it will be a long time before they are considered seriously.

If you’re interested in the positive outcomes of playing games, here is a recent podcast on the subject:

The surprising effects of video games with Ash Brandin (TED)