Modern videogames can have a number of potential impacts on the brain. From specific abstract mental exercises that work on cerebral fitness, to games used to recreate real-world problems, to those intended simply to entertain, stimulation of the little gray cells can be approached in a variety of ways. Now new research suggests that your brain might actually get the most benefit where you'd least expect it.
After analyzing the cognitive effects of video games, Drs. C. Shawn Green and Aaron R. Seitz say that action videogames — that is, games that include large amounts of detail or "clutter" and that feature quickly moving targets that move in and out of view requiring the user to make rapid decisions and accurate responses — have particularly positive cognitive impacts, even when compared to "brain games," which, by their own admission, are created specifically to improve mental function.
A new article by Green and Seitz, published in the latest issue of Policy Insights from the Behavioral and Brain Sciences, argues that it is the specific content, dynamics and mechanics of individual games that determine the effect on the brain and that action videogames might have particularly positive benefits. This goes against the typical image of such games when they are reported in the media. Coverage has tended to focus on the negative, apparently violent aspects of some of their content.
The researchers suggest that by looking at all such games as a homogenous entity and concentrating on the perceived "antisocial" features of them, we might actually be missing out on the benefits they can offer. "The term videogames refers to thousands of quite disparate types of experiences," say Green and Seitz, "anything from simple computerized card games to richly detailed and realistic fantasy worlds, from a purely solitary activity to an activity including hundreds of others, etc."
Instead, they argue, it might be a better idea to look at the content and effect of videogames more objectively — looking at how the brain actually responds to specific challenges. "A useful analogy is to the term food" the scientists say, "one would never ask, 'What is the effect of eating food on the body?' Instead, it is understood that the effects of a given type of food depend on the composition of the food such as the number of calories; the percentage of protein, fat and carbohydrates; the vitamin and mineral content; and so on."
Green and Seitz argue that these much-maligned computer games can probably do a lot more good than we sometimes give them credit for whereas many so-called "brain games" don't tend to offer the same type of mental workout. "Action videogames," they say "have been linked to improving attention skills, brain processing and cognitive functions including low-level vision through high-level cognitive abilities. Many other types of games do not produce an equivalent impact on perception and cognition…brain games typically embody few of the qualities of the commercial video games linked with cognitive improvement."
It's not all plain sailing, of course. Recognition behavior and cognitive function are not on/off switches — the human brain is a lot more complicated than that and no game has the same effect on every individual. Green and Seitz admit that, while action games in particular have not been linked to problems with sustaining attention, research has shown that a large amount of videogame play predicts poorer attention in the classroom. Furthermore, videogames are known to impact not only cognitive function, but also many other aspects of behavior — including social functions — and this impact can be either positive or negative depending on the content of the games.
Recently, a group of 230 academics signed an open letter criticizing a report by the American Psychological Association, which they say unfairly attaches blame for violent and antisocial behavior to videogames. They argue the root cause of violence is much more complex and that the overall steady decline in societal violence contradicts claims that videogames are directly responsible for such behavior. "The statistical data are simply not bearing out this concern and should not be ignored," they wrote in their response.
Though the debate over videogame violence is far from settled, Green and Seitz maintain that the effect of action games as a whole has a much greater a more positive role in learning than has previously been suggested. "Modern videogames" they say, "have evolved into sophisticated experiences that instantiate many principles known by psychologists, neuroscientists and educators to be fundamental to altering behavior, producing learning and promoting brain plasticity. Videogames, 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."