First-Person Shooters Are Oddly Good For The Brain

By John Walker on November 21st, 2012 at 12:00 pm.

Hang on, I'm just dramatically improving my brain.

Sitting and playing the nonsense of Black Ops 2, it’s hard to imagine that your brain is improving in any way. Turns out, it’s improving in lots of ways.

Goodness, some positive, intelligent science regarding health and videogames. With cathartic ease, cognative researcher Daphne Bavelier discusses how their research has shown that even hardcore FPS games have positive effects on the brain. In fact, especially hardcore FPS games.

Usually when someone reveals a statistic like Call Of Duty: Black Ops’ having been played for 68,000 man-years (in 2010), it’s because something damning is coming along. But Bavelier asks the question, is this time good for the brain?

Keeping things in sensible balance, recognising that over-playing, binging, being negative, she also observes the positive physical and mental effects of gaming. Eyesight, attention disorders, task-management, all show significant improvement through action gaming.

Clearly the only sensible way to assimilate the information in the video is to take it on board alongside the rigorous science that demonstrates negative effects of gaming. There is certainly a paucity of that, and often when you look into the negative research things tend to slightly fall apart. However, the consensus at the moment, derived from meta-analyses, seems to be that there is a cognitive effect of playing violent games that leads to short-term changes in aggression levels. Incredibly minor changes – certainly not enough to cause a non-violent person to act violently – but changes, and that’s definitely worth our attention.

It becomes a practice of listening to all the well-researched evidence, taking on board both the positives and the negatives, and weighing them in contention. The improved skills listed above don’t represent a broad range, but they remain further good science looking at genuinely positive results. And of course its greater purpose is to see if these positive effects can be used for rehabilitation processes. I love the observation that educational games are like chocolate-coated broccoli, and it’s exciting to see a team trying to rethink the possibilities for how educational/rehabilitative gaming could become significantly more appealing.

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96 Comments »

  1. President Weasel says:

    ” certainly not enough to cause a non-violent person to act violently – but changes, and that’s definitely worth our a”

    is the sudden stop in this paragraph a subtle comment on the way gaming affects our attention spans?

    • Xari says:

      I think he just accidentally a word.

    • John Walker says:

      Cheers – RPS’s WordPress was being quite the arse this morning.

      • Morlock says:

        Please leave it. It’s good humour even if it is unintentional.

        As for the research: I LOLed when she mentioned that action gamers are better at distinguishing different shades of grey. I guess this also applies to brown ;)

      • wallnuss says:

        cognative researcher, it is cognitive researcher :)
        As somebody studying cognitive science and being a gamer (more RTS) I am intrigued by the study, even though I am more concentrating on paving the way for your robotic overlords.

  2. Ian says:

    Yeah but somebody on Fox said that games = murder. I’m not sure how your precious “science” is supposed to argue with that.

    • Xzi says:

      You sir, deserve a cookie.

    • Brigand says:

      I hate to be the dick who defends Fox news but I’ve read a couple of articles on it giving balanced arguments about the benefits and negatives of playing video games.

  3. Maxheadroom says:

    So, should I start holding my breath now for the Daily Mail to cover this story then?

  4. Gap Gen says:

    Games have had a complex and deep impact on my development, and I’m not sure how far-reaching that impact is. I mean, I owe my current job to an interest in games, and to some extent the prosthetic realities in games stopped me going quite as insane as I could have done as a teen. Equally, there’s a certain amount that playing too many games has fucked me up emotionally, but I suspect that’s not the biggest effect on my emotional well-being overall.

    • EnragedPixel says:

      Just out of pure curiosity, how would you say that games has “fucked you up emotionally”?

    • Gap Gen says:

      Well, I am naturally introverted, and was even more so, and it’s possible that games facilitated that and stopped me from trying to be more outgoing or interacting with people rather than playing a week-long campaign of SMAC/Civ/Total War/whatever instead. I don’t think they did anything like turn me into a murderer, say, but then I’m not predisposed to violence or personal conflict anyway.

      It’s difficult to tell, though – I had various family problems growing up, and my playing videogames too much was intertwined with that, so it’s difficult to disentangle the effects of all the inputs on my development.

      • EnragedPixel says:

        I think that we introverts tend to gravitate to loner-activities no matter which form they take, so i don’t think removing video games from the equation would have made you more extroverted. You would probably just have substituted it with some other introverted pastime, such as reading books, watching television or finding a creative outlet.

      • DrGonzo says:

        There is absolutely nothing wrong with being introverted. It’s likely that society suggesting it’s wrong for you to be introverted had an effect on you.

        • GunnerMcCaffrey says:

          There’s also nothing wrong with introverted people reflecting on what it means to have so many handy excuses to not go and be social (which they might not have had even ten years ago). There are healthy and unhealthy ways to act out our personalities. Avoidance and self-isolation are the potential unhealthy aspects of introversion, and video games can definitely encourage them if one isn’t thoughtful and occasionally courageous.

        • plugmonkey says:

          Well said DrGonzo. Being very introverted is no less ‘normal’ or ‘healthy’ than being very extroverted.

          Nor is it more likely to make you a murderer. Far less, if anything.

          It’s not videogames that makes people like this. 100 years ago we’d all have been tying flies, or building cathedrals out of matchsticks, or memorising train timetables..

        • Tenver says:

          I think he means that life problems, especially in childhood, combined with the ease of isolation in today’s society, especially the Western world, can compound in ways that previous distractions did not. He highlights the example of solitary, non-physical, less social interaction provided by computers compared to listening to radio or reading books or enjoying nature alone as I might imagine could have been previous times’ distraction for the introverted person. Sitting at the computer is very single-focused on using your brain only for very specific tasks and though includes some sociality, not by any means at the same level or the same broad spectre that real-life social interaction engages, and can create problems that are very focused in single things when humans can benefit well from a little bit of stimulation from different sources, not to mention that games these days are very addictive. It’s not pong or tetris, it’s world of warcraft or Call of Duty; there’s always something to do or someone to beat and the games track and reward for you a lot of those steps.

          You might say the same thing of reality TV, that it can make extroverted young people take on more than they should and at an age and maturity level earlier than they should in trying to copy people on those shows.

          Personally, I incline to agree with him as the Western world in general is very focused and you are not forced to co-operate very much as a young individual, there are fewer resources reaching out to you and that you can reach out to in everyday, normal life if life throws you bad parents or personal difficulties f.ex., there are far too much information and stimulation being thrown at young people when they should be outside playing ball or something or helping Dad/Mom/neighbour/family doing something or working. You can say it’s completely different in rural Africa.

      • Lamb Chop says:

        You should check out The Power of Introverts.

    • Snargelfargen says:

      I’m crazy and judging from past experiences, gaming has kept me out of quite a bit of trouble. Thanks for keeping me out of the grip of substance abuse and crippling debt, gaming!

  5. sonofsanta says:

    So an intelligent woman saying nice things about video games? This is going to confuse a lot of people on the internet.

    In other news: hurrah! Serious research with genuinely scientific underpinnings. Maybe today isn’t such a grey rainy day after all.

    • Big Murray says:

      See, Sarkeesian? This is how you become a liked woman on the internet.

      • Surlywombat says:

        What a strange comment, really don’t know what to make of it.

        • DrGonzo says:

          I think he has a point. I’m sure at least some of the Sarkeesian hate came from her not being very good, rather than her being a her.

        • Unaco says:

          I think the take home is that Big Murray is a big silly, and we should probably leave it at that.

      • sonofsanta says:

        Yeah, I don’t think you got what I was saying. Though you did demonstrate it very well.

  6. SuperNashwanPower says:

    I’m definitely more aggressive after. These games produce adrenaline so you’re bound to be a bit wound up. Also rage quits. I nearly killed my sofa the other day after playing dark souls.

    However I know to stop short of taking that out on a human and if I had kids would keep it under control. I was on my own though so the sofa got abused.

    • John Walker says:

      The crucial distinction here is did the game cause you to become someone who becomes aggressive and beats up sofas. Or are you that person, and inspired to behave that way by games?

      It’s this differentiation that’s so crucial – games can perhaps prompt violent people to behave violently, but there is scant evidence that they can cause someone to develop violent tendencies.

      • jhng says:

        That is a useful distinction, granted; however, I think you are straying into slightly dangerous territory here.

        Any human behaviour is derived from a vast range of factors relating to environment, history, stimuli, genetics and so forth. You acknowledge that games can be a contributory factor where other factors are present (I haven’t looked into this personally but my wife, who is a psychologist, tells me that this is quite well supported). However, the fact that we can’t pin games as either a necessary or sufficient cause for violent behaviour does not, in my view, absolve us of the need to consider their role as a contributory factor and the ethical consequences of that effect.

        If we do go down that route, then we are effectively running an argument analogous to “guns don’t kill people, people do”. It may be true, but it is also the case that guns contribute to the ability and likelihood of people killing people.

        Of course, there are also lots of good reasons why games have a lot of violence (it is one of our most natural behavioural models for challenge and competition, for example) — I’m not doing a Jack Thomson — but I think it is tempting to get polarised on the issue and as leading lights in the gaming field you guys should be wary of that.

        • DrGonzo says:

          I feel no need to investigate or justify my hobby. Until someone proves it has a serious negative impact on me. It’s not for us to have to defend ourselves but for others to prove that there is in fact something wrong with it if that is the case.

          That is what frustrates me when John covers some of the nonsense people come up with ( not this article). I see the point in doing it, but in my opinion he’s just giving absolute guff another outlet, when it should have just been ignored.

      • SuperNashwanPower says:

        @john

        I am usually very meek :(

        Dark souls is the only game that ever lead to sofa abuse however. I will go home and be nice to it tonight.

        • Valkyr says:

          You better, you scum, if you don’t want us to report a domestic abuse of sofa!

          • SuperNashwanPower says:

            It’s leather. Its BADASS. Like Alice Cooper. Except in sofa form

      • EnragedPixel says:

        And is aggression inherently bad? It is quite the natural impulse, and using video games as an outlet for it sure is safer than a lot of other ways. The view that “aggression = bad” is for me a rather weird one. Aggression just is. Some people are more aggressive than others and need an outlet, how you channel that energy is the most important thing and possibly separates a law-abiding citizen from one who isn’t.

        • SuperNashwanPower says:

          Eloquently put

        • Stochastic says:

          It’s a misconception that “venting” releases anger. This cathartic view of anger and frustration is based on a steam pressure metaphor. That is, anger is something that builds up like steam and needs to be released from time to time. In reality doing things like punching pillows, screaming loudly, etc. makes people even more worked up.

          Just Google “hydraulic model anger” if you want more info. Also, see this article: http://illinois.edu/lb/files/2009/03/26/9293.pdf

          I do agree with your overall point that aggression is not always bad, though.

    • Panda Powered says:

      That is just frustration from failing at something. Its not the game in itself causing it and everyone reacts differently to frustration. Venting it by hitting a fist in the wall, cursing or just keeping it in and building up bloodpressure. :P Just like my front doorstep isn’t really at fault for me cursing when I stub my toe on it every other day.

      • SuperNashwanPower says:

        True. If I am kicking bottom in a game I am happy. Defense grid and skyrim have even had me singing :) But yeah it was a frustration anger as opposed to re-enacting ‘learned’ aggression.

    • derbefrier says:

      Yeah I remember back when i was younger me and my brother would play Mortal Kombat on our Sega Genesis and sometimes controllers would get broken from us throwing them at each other along with accusations of using cheap tactics to win. After the third controller got broken in a couple of months my parents said they were not buying us anymore. needless to say we quit throwing our controllers at each other and used other things that didn’t break so easily :P. I have rage quit many games, I have yelled and screamed and all that crap. I have also never hit a single person out of anger before. I let loose playing a game because no one gets hurt. Being mature enough to know the difference is the important part. I finally understand why my dad would come in my room when he heard me raging and say things like “You know this isnt real right, its just a game”. I thought it was weird at first but now that I am older I understand what he was worried about.

    • zeroskill says:

      I can never understand how people can become so aggressive after dying in video games. It’s just so silly. Is it the failure state that triggers that reaction? Has it something to do with the industry, as in general, games have become more easy than it used to be in the early 90′ties? Is your general gamer just not used to be challenged anymore, seeing games as an entertainment product and/or “cinematic experiences” as opposed to an challenge that is to be overcome?

      It probably is just a mather of how different people react to frustration.

      • SuperNashwanPower says:

        Patronising people are also quite anger producing.

        Bring out the sofa.

    • Stochastic says:

      There’s a big difference between acting “violently” or aggressively in the short term and developing chronic violent tendencies. I think this is an important distinction which often gets overlooked in a lot of these articles and studies.

      • Shuck says:

        Also, to be fair, the “violent” games being referenced in the studies weren’t, necessarily. Looking into some of the studies, the games that caused a short-term increase in aggression were any “twitch” games that relied on quick reflexes and might cause an adrenalin release in the player. In other words, they were no different from a game of, say, table tennis, which presumably would provoke a similar response.

  7. Trillby says:

    I’d just like to quickly admonish RPS for the blatant one-sided journalism presented here, asking me to believe that gaming has any positive effects on my brain, my eyes, my penis or any other bodily organ or function. A very brief google search threw up hundreds of articles from very credit-worthy and established newspapers and websites claiming exactly the opposite of what you have presented here – brains turning to mush, eyes worsening and requiring increasingly thick spectecles and penises shriveled and withering due to an insurmountable lack of any social contact whatsoever.

    Simply toeing the party line like this makes you all just look silly, in my opinion. For shame.

  8. brkl says:

    Educational games are more like… What tastes bad, is bad for you and nobody wants? Maybe cardboard, although nobody is enthusiastically trying to feed that to kids.

  9. MOKKA says:

    I would be interested in the topic, but after I saw Elaine Morgan (search for ‘aquatic ape theory’ if you want to know for what she’s famous for) giving a TED-Talk, I just can’t take anyone serious who attends these things.

    • John Walker says:

      I’d trust the information in well-respected books, but I once read a Jeffrey Archer novel, and now I can’t believe anyone reads the things.

      • Pop says:

        Daphne Bavelier’s has had papers published in Nature Neuroscience. That’s basically playing in the premier league in her field. Sure there’s probably the Champions League above her, but no one’s going to sniff at it.

        The big question is: are the skills by themselves useful in the rest of life. No doubt soldiers, pilots etc benefit from them, but casual desk jockeys?

        • JackShandy says:

          To be useless, games would have to invent challenges that require skills used by nothing else in existence. I consider this impossible.

          • Pop says:

            Not necessarily. You can define useless in several ways:
            1. It develops a skill I’d never otherwise use (like using a gamepad), which doesn’t generalise to other areas of life.

            2. It develops a skill, but so slowly compared to other activities, that doing almost anything else would be more beneficial

            3. Other activities develop the same skill and others, making it effectively useless (if you’re an economist and you regard utility as progression personal development)

          • Askeladd says:

            Anyway, in that video where they make fun of the Google’s glasses (TM) they forgot to make fun of an achievement system in real life!

            Random is Random.

        • darkChozo says:

          Well, the skills mentioned in the write up (attention span and task management) are definitely beneficial to pretty much any job, or at the very least any white collar job. I’d hazard a guess that some of the skills developed through video games would also be helpful in a lot of technical fields, just because a lot of it is understanding how systems work and how to best use and/or abuse them to achieve the best results (ie. engineering) [I have an engineering degree, almost a psychology minor, and play video games, so I'm 100% qualified to state this is a bonified fact, honest].

    • Surlywombat says:

      It looks like your brush has got a some tar on it, I recommend getting a new one.

    • Skabooga says:

      The gulf between a TED-talk and a peer-reviewed scholarly article is vast and deep.

  10. Koozer says:

    Surely the heightened aggression after playing a violent game is the same effect that makes people drive faster to music with a higher tempo, start trying to walk through shadows after watching a late showing of a spy film, or pondering the real meaning of their lives after the X Factor?

  11. bit.bat says:

    I would be interested to see a discussion by gamers on what we think the negative effects of gaming are on ourselves or society in general as I feel that we are more often on the defence, waxing lyrical about the positives and never attempt to discuss possible negatives.

    Starting such discussions by gamers might bring to light realities that are hard to admit but it seems to be the mature thing to do and you never know, it might in the long run lead to better games.

    • Askeladd says:

      The greatest downside of gaming is imo it takes time away from other things, which should take priority or get left behind for last too often. Also I think there’s only RL. If you game it’s RL for you, so there’s no need to discern your gaming life with real life.

      Gaming becomes a problem if gaming is what defines you. It doesn’t mean you can’t get a fulfilling life with only gaming, but the chances are high you are missing out on a lot, or even destroy your life with it.

      There a also studies which indicate that consumption of alcohol decreases your ability to make the right (long term) decisions for your life. i.e. getting the wrong girl pregnant.

      • NathanH says:

        I’m quite comfortable with saying that gaming defines me. I don’t think I’m damaging myself at all. It gives me motivation to go to work, it keeps me happy, keeps me out of trouble, and it doesn’t really affect anyone else. I don’t feel like I’m missing out on things that would be a better use of my time.

        • Askeladd says:

          Well, I meant ‘defines’ as in ‘is the only thing in your life that matters to you’.
          You could also say it shouldn’t become an addiction.

      • bit.bat says:

        Your point on RL is interesting, I never realized that I unconsciously make the distinction some times.

        To be a bit more specific about possible negatives, one of the things that sometimes worries me is the social isolation that can result from the ever increasing online connectivity in games nowadays (granted that gaming is only a part of the greater online world).

        With kids now growing up in a play environment that involves more and more online social contact and less contact in person (just to be clear this is mostly observation from my part and is not based on any study…) I wonder if that has any effect in later life social interactions that are in person by necessity.

        As I said above games are only one part of the online world but perhaps they are especially applicable when it comes to children growing up due to the importance of play in early development.

      • jhng says:

        But lots of people let themselves be defined by far worse things — like their jobs or their relationship or their role as parents. I would say that letting your interests define you is actually quite healthy in comparison.

        I meet so many people who really have nothing going on upstairs apart from their job or keeping up with the parents of their kids’ friends or whatever. At least ‘gamers’ are likely to have a bit mental engagement.

  12. serioussgtstu says:

    Being a massive cynic, I went and checked were the funding for this research came from. Fortunately, they’re all highly reputable and impartial organizations such as the National Science Foundation, Merck global healthcare and the National institutes of health, not Activision. Sorry.

  13. Roz says:

    ” Usually when someone reveals a statistic like Call Of Duty: Black Ops’ having been played for 68,000 man-years (in 2010) ”

    Think how much further ahead we’d be if people had spent those hours/days/years doing something more productive.

    Obviously, as a gamer, I’m not ragging on people who play, its just crazy to think about.

  14. Qwentle says:

    Somewhat interestingly one of the tests she mentions that action gamers perform better in (determining what colour a specific word is written in) is very similar, though not identical, to a test in the linked article that stated that gamers performed worse in (the “emotional interference test”)

    • Stochastic says:

      I haven’t read the article, but the word color task she demonstrated in the TED talk is one of the most famous experimental paradigms in cognitive psychology, the Stroop test. It examines the effects of semantic interference, which are probably very different from those of emotional interference.

      EDIT: Okay, so in that RPS article I think it just says that the gamers had less brain activation in the examined regions. I can’t find anywhere where it says they actually performed worse on the task (but I just skimmed the article so I may have missed it).

  15. Pop says:

    Weirdly, my current job is to make video games for the department of Psychiatry at Cambridge…

    I think it’s also worth noting that there are (based on my understanding) far greater benefits to be had from regular exercise and learning to play a musical instrument, so I wouldn’t want video games to squeeze that out either.

  16. Morlock says:

    This is very encouraging. I am a researcher at a UK institution and work on computerised tools which may help people recover from language difficulties after stroke. We aim at very basic systems of processing sequential information, and one aim is to “gamify” the tools. This task of “making chocolate which is as healthy as broccoli” is indeed a challenge, especially if you are designing for people with severe communication difficulties. If we get the money to do it, we will spend about one year just tweaking the chocolate formula.

  17. Leper says:

    Has there been any studies on the effect of less violent action games? I’m thinking something like Quake Live or Warsow where it’s still conceptually violent but less explicitly so. Especially Warsow where you just throw coloured lights at comic book characters until they burst into coloured shapes as opposed to shooting recognisable men with recognisable guns until they spray recognisable blood as in the Cods and the BFs.
    I just wonder if more abstract competition produces the same negative effects as I’m sure it has the same positive effects with the reaction times and quick thinking and so on.

  18. Citrus says:

    When I first killed a Strogg as a child, it affected me. I started watching too much porn.

    It’s related, somehow. One day someone will do a study on this.

  19. Arglebargle says:

    I recall, years ago, seeing an interview with an old Air Force colonel, who attributed the greater skills of his squadron’s active fighter pilots to their early video game playing. Just saying….

  20. Stupoider says:

    Games are beneficial to the brain!

    But compared to what? I know that staring at a wall isn’t going to stimulate me, how does gaming compare to reading, or watching a film, or doing something practical?

  21. Pray For Death says:

    I love the broccoli and chocolate analogy at the end

  22. StormFuror says:

    This is true. I was injured in Iraq from an IED on a dismounted raid. I was knocked out by the concussion of the bomb. I have traumatic brain injury and went through 5 brain surgeries(3 different procedures) as well. While recovering I played a lot of video games and I had a real hard time playing FPS games. My reaction time and memory for button controls and map layouts was just absurd. A normal multiplayer game I would go for something like 4 deaths and 22 deaths in MP, and in single player games I would play mainly on easy and struggle horribly at games set on medium.

    I still suffer with some of these issues, but for the most part my reaction time is back to normal. While going through cognitive rehabilitation I would have tests and “mind” work outs to work on reaction time. One of the tests would be to press space when a yellow block appears on the screen. Sometimes it would take over a second to press the button. Fast forward to present day, now in FPS games I am usually in the top 5 players(besides Counter-Strike,lol). I would say video games has helped my brain recover more than any other treatment I have done. I’m still pretty far from where I was pre-injury because I still suffer from 24/7 disabling headaches and at least 20 other brain injury symptoms. But at least I am competitive in FPS games now, lol.

  23. Jamesworkshop says:

    Doesn’t seem that surprising considering you are navigating a 3d enviroment that strictly isn’t 3d or even there, and you do no actual bodyily navigation, all done by proxy.

    without brain power nothing about a game exists as nothing exists in a virtual creation until its defined, which is in the brain.

    Her stress on “action-games” sounds really forced

    roll on mirrors edge 2, my brain might be too weak in the future

  24. Shortwave says:

    Without games I’d probably be dead, or a drug addict.
    Thank you games.

    The end.

  25. MirzaGhalib says:

    Not sure about any of this… I regularly punch people in the face after playing Call of Duty. Hoorah!

  26. Bobtree says:

    It’s often overlooked, but playing videogames is excellent training for playing more videogames.

  27. The Random One says:

    This is why I like RPS. Someone says ‘HEY GAMES ARE GREAT’ and both journalists and commenters raise their eyebrows. Everywhere else on the gamer blogsphere people would be like this: http://www.escapistmagazine.com/articles/view/comics/critical-miss/8903-Gamer-Science

  28. ScorpionWasp says:

    This entire implicit undertone that fun, fulfilling activities have to be “useful” and “beneficial” in order to justify their existences irks me to no end. People, you’re doing it backwards. The entire reason you wake up every morning and go do boring chores, and work on your skills at doing boring chores and all that is so you have the means to do the things that indeed generate *satisfaction* for yourself. They are a means to an end, they are the activities that have to justify themselves (by indirectly allowing you to engage in fun things). Activities that generate satisfaction directly are the purest, most refined form of “usefulness” and “benefit”. Or isn’t actually *wanting* to exist in the first place useful?