Games don’t just affect enthusiasm

With so many children and young adults playing video games each day, researchers are exploring how exposure to consistent game playing affects brain functions and brain plasticity–the brain’s ability to change throughout life.

Daphne Bavelier, professor of Brain and Cognitive Sciences at the University of Rochester in New York and a presenter at the National Center for Technology Innovation’s annual Technology Innovators Conference, says her research suggests that playing action video games on a regular basis can alter a player’s attention skills.

“We have shown that playing first-person point of view action video games affects several aspects of perception, attention, and cognition,” said Bavelier.

Skills that are enhanced by action video game training, Bavelier said, include low-level vision owing to enhanced contrast sensitivity function; various aspects of attention, such as monitoring several objects at once or searching through a cluttered scene; more complex task constructs such as multi-tasking and task-switching; and a general speeding up of perceptual processing.

“This work illustrates how skilled performance in a variety of processing domains can be enhanced by a single training regimen. Practical implications of this finding, such as vocational training (e.g., for laparoscopic surgeons) or clinical rehabilitation are being investigated,” she said.

“In another study, we aimed at answering the question, ‘Are gamers better than non-gamers at not getting visually distracted because of gaming?’ And when we did the control study, we found that yes, it’s true–gamers have better focus and better visually selective attention,” Bavelier said.

Bavelier added that while these brain functions could develop with all video games, action games push the speed of learning.

“Action games have diverse environments that don’t let gamers lose attention. They also let gamers explore their environments, and this is good. Most also have a reward system for completing actions successfully, which has been shown to be a strong motivator to playing,” said Bavelier.

By studying how various video games affect brain function, Bavelier and her colleagues at the University of Rochester hope to determine how performance can be altered by experience (the length of game playing) and to characterize the factors that favor the transfer of learning (in other words, to identify the aspects of video games help people to learn). These ongoing behavioral investigations are combined with brain imaging techniques, including MRI and fMRI, to allow for a more direct characterization of the brain systems that are modified by video-game playing.

In “The development of attention skills in action video game players,” Bavelier and her colleagues use the Attentional Network Test (ANT) to illustrate how action video game players of all ages have enhanced attentional skills, thereby helping them make faster correct responses to targets.

Bavelier said while she has not yet studied how increased attentional skills and other brain functions affected by action video-game playing can translate into classroom learning, other researchers at the University of Oregon have begun those studies.

“In terms of education, the next step should be [to] take the violence out of action video games and use the same brain-building characteristics in these action video games to make [high] quality education games,” said Bavelier.

(Next page: Where to go from here)

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