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Can Video Games Make You Smarter?

Some surprising research might start to change the way we think about video gaming.

By Bill Camarda

With all the awful press that video games get, a surprising "man bites dog" twist has recently shown up in the media: video games might just make you smarter. Can that possibly be true? What's the evidence? Well, there's some very tantalizing recently-published research on videogaming and intelligence. Let's take a look...

Stronger attention, better multitasking?
We live in a multitasking world, and C. Shawn Green and Daphne Bavelier at the University of Rochester have shown that action videogame playing increases the capacity of the visual attention system to stay focused, despite distractions. According to the researchers, "at difficulty levels where non-videogame players have long depleted their attentional resources, videogame players possess sufficient resources to perform the target task, with resources still remaining to spill over to the distracters."
Green and Bavelier also write, "by forcing players to simultaneously juggle... varied tasks (detect new enemies, track existing enemies and avoid getting hurt, among others), action-videogame playing pushes the limits of three rather different aspects of visual attention. It leads to detectable effects on new tasks and at untrained locations after only 10 days of training." And these new skills do appear to carry over to other tasks, not just videogame playing.
Psychology graduate student Jim Karle, at Ontario, Canada's McMaster University, has been hooking gamers up to MRIs, and monitoring them as they play. His preliminary work suggests that some videogames may strengthen memory retention and information processing, especially where memory tasks involve rearranging and memorizing new information, rather than simply repeating existing data.
Help for the aging – or autistic – brain?
Some scientists, reading research like this, have wondered if videogames might be used to help older people stay sharp. Dr. Arthur Kramer of the University of Illinois Department of Psychology has been a pioneer in this work. Interviewed recently by SharpBrains.com, Kramer noted that as we age, our "executive functions" tend to decline – skills that are crucial to independence, such as "executive control, planning, dealing with ambiguity, prioritizing, and multi-tasking."
Kramer taught a group of older individuals how to play the strategy-based game Rise of Nations Gold Edition. After training, Kramer found significant improvements in several areas related to executive function, including task switching, working memory, visual short-term memory, and mental rotation. He also found "some, but more limited, benefits in inhibition and reasoning."
Meanwhile, armed with suggestive evidence that the right videogames could help "rewire" brains trying to recover from brain injuries, University of Missouri researchers are trying to use a game called Space Race to "retrain" the brains of autistic children.

"Often, children with autism disconnect, and we want to use neurofeedback to teach them how it feels to pay attention and be more alert. We want to teach them to regulate their own brain function," said Guy McCormack, chair of the university's occupational therapy and occupational science department. "The ultimate goal is to lay down new neural pathways and, hopefully, see changes in focus and attention span, social interaction, improved sleep, and appetite."

Spatial skills – for you, and your surgeon?
Spatial skills are one of the most studied aspects of videogaming and intelligence. And they're one of the areas in which the impact of videogames seems clearest. As far back as the mid-'80s, researchers found that videogame-trained groups showed significantly stronger spatial skills than control groups, and that spatial visualization appears to be trainable with videogame play. In 1987, McClurg and Chaille showed that fifth-graders trained on videogames did better on a standard "mental rotation" test than ninth graders without videogame training. Just weeks ago, researchers discovered that some important differences in spatial abilities between men and women were "largely eliminated" after both groups played a videogame for only a few hours.

You might be able to live without superior spatial and reaction skills, but for some folks, they're a matter of life and death. Take, for example, surgeons. And check out these study results: surgeons who played videogames scored 40% better on a course designed to simulate and teach laparoscopic suturing. Subjects who had at some point played videogames for more than three hours per week made 37% fewer errors than those who never played videogames. Videogame skills were far more correlated with success than, for example, years of experience as a surgeon!

Better team players, better leaders?
So far, all this research focuses on the possibility of helping individuals improve their brain function. But some people believe that games – especially today's online multiplayer games – may help people become better at teamwork. More and more work is organized into teams nowadays, so if this is true, gaming could make your kids more effective and successful in the workplace.

Top business researchers John C. Beck and Mitchell Wade, authors of Got Game: How the Gamer Generation is Reshaping Business Forever, have this to say: "We conducted a nationwide survey -- about 2,500 US business professionals -- looking for differences between those who grew up playing videogames and those who did not. Among the gamers, we thought we'd find high technical skills, interesting ways of using those skills -- and real gaps in things like teamwork, leadership, and work ethic. The data, with amazing consistency, proved us wrong. Professionals who grew up playing videogames actually make better business people. They're more serious about achievement; more attached to the company they work for and the people they work with; more flexible, persistent problem-solvers; more willing to take only the risks that make sense. In short, they're pretty good executives right out of the gate."

There's a lot we don't know yet
A few important cautions: To begin with, it's important not to overstate what we truly know about videogames and thinking. Scientists are really still in the earliest stages of researching these issues. Don't be surprised if the story changes quite a bit in the next few years: that's how leading-edge science works.
Second, it's hard to research videogames. To begin with, which games do you use? Would you get the same results researching, say, Halo 3 and Super Mario Bros, two games which offer radically different experiences? Might older games deliver different results from newer games? Also, which people? Researchers might get very different results depending on whether their subjects are young or old, male or female, experienced videogamers or novices.
Third, in research like this, it's very hard to tell the difference between "correlation" and "causation." (For example, do violent videogames make kids more violent, or are kids who already have violent tendencies more attracted to violent videogames?) Last but not least, you'll sometimes see research that's been sponsored by companies that are trying to sell you products that promise to "make you smarter." Use the brains you already have: take company-sponsored research with a big grain of salt!

However, even with all these caveats, there appears to be overwhelming evidence that videogaming develops mental skills that can be extremely useful in other walks of life.
Is it all good news? No way!
So, with all this great research backing you up, should you require your kids to spend all their waking hours playing videogames? Umm, no.
Obviously, time they're spending playing videogames is time they're not spending doing something else. There's a definite correlation between videogames and childhood obesity (though nobody's yet proved that videogames directly cause the obesity. And, by the way, in case you're wondering: "active" videogames like Dance Dance Revolution or virtual tennis use up only one-fourth of the calories of their "real" equivalents.)
There's something else your kids aren't doing when they're playing videogames: schoolwork. According to research published last year in the Archives of Pediatrics & Adolescent Medicine, "compared with non-videogame players, adolescents who played videogames spent 30 percent less time reading and 34 percent less time doing homework." That might be why a separate 2007 study in CyberPsychology & Behavior found that "the amount of time a student spends playing videogames has a negative correlation with students' GPA and SAT scores. As videogame usage increases, GPA and SAT scores decrease."
Bottom line: today's parents still need to heed the thoughts of Aristotle, 2,400 years ago: "everything in moderation", including time with that Xbox 360, PS3, or Wii!

Bill Camarda has been writing about technology for families, kids, and others for 25 years, starting as an editor for Scholastic's Family Computing Magazine. His 18 computer books include Upgrading & Fixing Networks For Dummies and The Cheapskate's Guide to Bargain Computing. He lives in Ramsey, NJ with his wife and 14-year old son.


Comment by Benj Arriola, posted 5/27/2009, 7:54 PM:

This was reposted on PTA.org which I am on their list having a 6 year old daughter in Sunset Hill (http://www.powayusd.com/pusdshes/) And I am 35 years old. I played Nintendo Game & Watch before any other Nintendo console came out and I've played on an Atari 2600 and old school DOS based games on a Windows 3.1 PC. I guess my age was the start of the gaming age and being a video game player dad, I'm aware of these benefits. For me the main benefits are Eye-Hand Coordination & Split Second Timing.
Comment by kv, posted 12/1/2008, 11:42 AM:

i did not know this thank you for informing us. this is really great for my artical
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