Action gaming and quick thinking

Playing action games can hone ability to decide quickly, precisely

In action video games, you have to act fast to avoid monsters, fight the bad guys and obliterate zombies — which come at you from every side. You have to pass all the levels, collect all the right objects, watch every corner of every room and listen carefully. You never know where trouble is brewing, but you know it’s out there somewhere.

According to a recent study, there’s something else going on in the brains of action game players: They’re getting better at using visual and auditory cues, or sights and sounds, to make quick decisions. And not just decisions that have to do with the imaginary world of the video game, says Daphne Bavelier. She led the new study and is a psychologist at the University of Rochester in New York.

Video game players improve their ability to make fast decisions “not just for the act of gaming, but for unrelated and rather dull tasks,” Bavelier told Science News.

One study of men and women showed that playing action video games for two hours our less each day for a few days could help people process information and make a correct decision much more quickly than those who didn’t play. jonya/iStock
Her research suggests the benefit isn’t limited to men, who play action games more often. When women play the games, they also improve their ability to interpret things they see and hear and then quickly make decisions.

To investigate the connection between action games and decision making, Bavelier and her team first studied two groups of men, average age 19 to 20. The men in one group reported playing video games five times a week, and the men in the other group did not play. All the men were asked to look at a computer screen and do a simple test. The computer screen showed a pattern of dots, and the men were asked to show — by pressing a key — which way most of the dots were moving. Easy patterns had all the dots moving in the same direction; more difficult patterns showed different dots moving in different directions.

The gamers did as well as the non-gamers on that test, but were faster. At all levels of the game, and especially the difficult levels, the gamers answered more quickly. When both groups of men were asked to do a simple test based on sounds, the results were the same. In that test, participants wore headphones and had to not only pick out specific sounds from background noise, but also decide whether they heard those sounds on the left or the right. The gamers did just as well as the non-gamers, but were faster.

Bavelier and her team also studied men and women, average age 26, who said they had not played video games in the past year. This experiment helped show whether gamers are naturally fast decision makers, or whether the action games can improve this ability for anyone. The men and women in one group were told to play two action video games for two hours or less per day, for a total of 50 hours. Men and women in the other group played a different video game — not an action game — in which they controlled a character’s life and tried to achieve goals.

As in the first experiment, the men and women who played action games were faster on the dot and sound tests.

Other psychologists say Bavelier’s work is interesting. Alan Castel of the University of California, Los Angeles, told Science News that the study is “thorough and intriguing.”

What might be more intriguing to some gamers is this idea: The men and women in Bavelier’s study were paid to play video games — in the name of science.

POWER WORDS (from the Yahoo! Kids Dictionary and WordNet)

psychology The science that deals with mental processes and behavior.

visual Of or relating to the sense of sight.

auditory Of or relating to hearing, the organs of hearing, or the sense of hearing.

Decision-making The cognitive process of reaching a decision

Stephen Ornes lives in Nashville, Tenn., and his family has two rabbits, six chickens and a cat. He has written for Science News Explores since 2008 on topics including lightning, feral pigs, big bubbles and space junk.

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