A new scientific study says that video games are making us smarter!

Good news, gamers! According to a recent scientific study, video games are making us (a little) smarter.

Video games are all the craze with kids these days. And grownups too, for that matter. In fact, everyone loves them! Statistics show that more than 40% of Americans report playing them more than 3 hours a week, with 27% of those players being over the age of 50, and 44% being females. The old cliche of it only being nerdy young dudes twiddling around on these devices is yesterdays news. And go ahead and toss that nonsense about games rotting our brains also. In fact, it's quite the contrary according to this study, which was just published in Policy Insights from the Behavioral and Brain Sciences journal. As it turns out, gaming could be doing a lot more for your cognition than multivitamins and fish ever could.

None of this should be too surprising these days, of course. Especially if you're a gamer. Not because of our inherent arrogance (although that probably shouldn't be ignored when we proceed to exaggerate this news) but because of the obvious training we put our minds through as we're zipping through combat, dodging bullets, memorizing enemy roots, watching for patterns to take advantage of, solving puzzles, etc.. In doing all of this, our minds are becoming alight with activity! Exercising our brains better than our parents morning crossword puzzles ever did theirs.

Furthermore, game designs and the reward systems in them that keep us practicing until we nail our objectives and master our play styles, are a perfect paradigm for learning. Think if college courses were taught with this same system, how easy and effective learning could be. No, not like those boring old educational games; but, instead, something more exciting! Just like the action-packed, big budget games we love the most. Only instead of being made to memorize and learn useless things to meet our goals and objectives, we're being made to master math equations and relativity. Or, you know, whatever.

As it is, this isn't happening. And the "brain games" released aren't quite as effective in their learning paradigm as more action-based games that don't teach us particular skills. But the possibilities are there. And that's pretty cool.

You can read the entire research paper directly from the links above (or here). Or you can be a lazy bastard and check out these highlights I've listed (and tried to simplify, for you non-gaming dummies) below.

How game design is perfect for teaching and learning

Pac-Man, for some reason doing the exact reverse of what's implied in this article

Video games, by their very nature, involve predominately active forms of learning (i.e., making responses and receiving immediate informative feedback), which is typically more effective than passive learning.

 In addition, this active learning usually occurs in a variety of situations, thus promoting generalization of learning.

 Most video games also use a dynamic degree of difficulty that increases along with player skill, ensuring that players are continuously challenged.

 Furthermore, many games use a combination of internal reinforcement (e.g., positive social interactions) and external reinforcement (e.g., points, badges, etc.). This reinforcement promotes significant time spent on tasks, which is the best single predictor of positive learning outcomes. In addition, this time is typically distributed over many days, weeks, or even years — a practice schedule that produces more effective learning than when experience is amassed into only a few sessions.

 Video games are highly physiologically arousing and activate reward systems of the brain that drive brain plasticity. Thus, there is a strong scientific basis to suspect that video games, when properly designed, have the potential to strongly alter the brain and behavior.

What kinds of games do our brains love best? Action games!
Metal Gear Solid 2: Sons of Liberty

Although every well-designed video game incorporates some or all the principles of effective learning mentioned above (as well as many others), and thus will have the potential to shape the brain and behavior, it is the specific content, dynamics, and mechanics of each individual game that determines its eventual effects.

The types of games that are of most interest in the cognitive domain are those that have complex 3D settings, that feature quickly moving targets that pop in and out of view, that necessitate substantial visual processing of the periphery, that include large amounts of clutter and task-irrelevant objects, that require the player to consistently switch between highly focused and highly distributed attention, and that require the player to make rapid but accurate decisions. Games that share the features are referred to as "action video games". Playing action video games has been linked with myriad enhancements in cognitive function, from low-level vision through high-level cognitive abilities, while playing many other types of games fails to produce equivalent impact on perception and cognition.

These "action games" are distinguised from other games (such as strategy or role-playing games) by their speed, high perceptual, cognitive, and motor loads (e.g., having multiple characters to monitor at the same time, and many possible motor plans to keep active before making a selection), an emphasis on peripheral visual field processing and divided attention (such as when we encounter items of interest that often first appear at the edges of the screen at the same time as events that are occurring at the center of the screen). Furthermore, these games require players to constantly make predictions regarding future game events both spatially ("Where is an enemy most likely to appear?") and temporally ("When is an enemy most likely to appear?"). The latter occurs at many different time scales, from the millisecond range when considering enemy appearance, to minutes for knowledge of the lay of the land, to hours or days for meta parameters such as achieving the goal of a particular game level.

Finally, as the game unfolds, players constantly receive feedback as to the accuracy of their predictions, a key step in engaging the reward system and thus producing learning.

Effects on Perceptual Skills and Vision
God of War

It's been shown in previous studies that playing action video games helps with:

• Contrast Sensitivity (Here's the study)
• Visual Acuity and Crowding (Here's the study)
• Peripheral Vision (Here's the study)
• Temporal Processing (Here's the study)
• Amblyopia (aka. "lazy eye") (Here's the study; also, here)

Collectively, these findings are consistent with the fact that action games require responding quickly (temporal processing) to important stimuli that are often similar to their backgrounds in their colorations (contrast sensitivity) and features (visual acuity), and typically occur in somewhat cluttered environments (crowding).

Effects on Attention Skills

Many studies demonstrate that action video game play improves visual attentional skills, such as the ability to find a particular target from within a large field of view when the target is surrounded by task-irrelevant distracting items, or to track a small subset of moving items from within a larger field of visually identical moving items. The fact that action gaming benefits performance in this domain is of particular interest because better performance on some of these same tasks is predictive of real-world consequences, such as fewer driving accidents in elderly populations. Thus, while there is still ambiguity regarding the exact mechanisms by which action video game play leads to improved task performance, as a whole, the literature supports th conclusion that action video games can give rise to benefits on a wide array of tasks that rely on perceptual/attentional abilities.

Effects on Higher Cognitive Functions
Beyond: Two Souls

Action video game play can enhance a diverse set of higher cognitive functions. Several studies show that individuals can switch between competing tasks more efficiently after action video game training. Other aspects of cognitive function improved by action video game training include the ability to multitask and the ability to mentally rotate objects. Cross-sectional work also suggests that action video game players perform better on tasks of working memory and fluid intelligence. However, the latter study failed to find a linear relation between amount of game play and fluid intelligence, and some studies have failed to reproduce effects of gaming on cognition, suggesting that more research is required in this domain.

Cognitive Effects on Children
The Last of Us: Left Behind

Unfortunately, because most action games contain adult content (typically violence), the vast majority of research conducted has mostly only focused on healthy young adult participants. However, when researchers have found age-appropriate video games to test on children, they observed similar results on their improvements in perception and cognition as well. Furthermore, cross-sectional studies reveal the same strong associations between avid action gaming and enhancements in cognitive skills in children as have been observed in adult populations.

Now for the Bad News
Duck Hunt "Game Over" screen

 Not all video games are created equal, as far as their cognitive benefits go. Just as with food, some is good for you while others aren't.

 It still remains a mystery as to how to best translate this research to produce a public good.

 This is no easy excuse to play video games for hours upon hours each day. Playing video games for more than 1 to 2 hours a day is unlikely to provide substantially greater cognitive benefits than what is found in intervention studies, which mostly relies on around an hour a day of training. Almost all learning, utilizing video games or otherwise, is subject to the effect of diminishing returns. This means that doubling the amount of time spent gaming will result in far less than twice as much improvement, and in fact can impair overall cognitive gain.

 When it comes to learning real-world tasks, the cognitive benefits that a video game can yield depend on good game design. Without proper design, gamification can potentially even impair task performance and learning. A likely reason for this is that gamification involves producing training tasks with "game features" that may be incompatible with and/or distract attention from task-relevant features, interfering with desired learning outcomes.

 Any time spent gaming is time that is not spent doing other activities that society may value to a greater degree (e.g., more time spent gaming may result in less time doing school work, and it is unlikely that the cognitive advantages will make up for the reduced academic achievement).

To view the entire paper, click here