People who play games such as "Call of Duty" are better able to multitask, perform cognitive tasks such as rotating objects in their minds, and focus and retain information than non-players, Daphne Bavelier, a research professor in brain and cognitive sciences at both the University of Rochester and the University of Geneva, told Bloomberg News. They even have better vision, she said.
How is that possible? It comes down to our brain's ability to model the future.
"Our brains keep predicting what will come next — whether when listening to a conversation, driving, or even preforming surgery," Bavelier said in a news release. “In order to sharpen its prediction skills, our brains constantly build models, or ‘templates,’ of the world. The better the template, the better the performance. And now we know playing action video game actually fosters better templates."
To measure the the effects of game playing, Bavelier's research team paid a group of college students $8 an hour to play video games for 50 hours over a nine-week span. They played two contrasting types of games, according to the study: ones with lots of action ("Call of Duty 2" and "Unreal Tournament 2004"), and ones with minimal action ("The Sims 2" and "Restaurant Empire").
Key for researchers, according to the news release, was determining how quickly action video game players were able to build and refine templates compared to people playing the slower video games. Not only were they able to build templates more quickly, according to researchers, but they were able to do it while they were engaged in another activity.
“When they began the perceptual learning task, action video gamers were indistinguishable from non-action gamers; they didn’t come to the task with a better template,” said Bavelier. “Instead, they developed better templates for the task, much, much faster showing an accelerated learning curve.”
After training ended, researchers revealed, the action video game players didn't immediately lose their new-found abilities. Tested a year later, "they still outperformed other participants, suggesting that they retained their ability to build better templates."
So how did they do it?
“The brain has not just one neuron, but networks of neurons talking to each other,” Bavelier told Bloomberg. “During the task, they were changing their connectivity on the fly to match the task at hand. They knew what was important to pay attention to and what was noise and distraction, and they could suppress distractions.”
The study was funded by the Office of Naval Research, the Swiss National Foundation, the Human Frontier Science Program and the National Eye Institute.
Bavelier's research uses video games to explore how people learn and how the brain adapts to changes in experience, according to her TED bio. Her laboratory uses a multidisciplinary approach and studies behavior, brain imaging, eye tracking and vital statistics to see how individuals learn and adapt to changes in experience, such as playing video games.
Bavelier, by the way, told Bloomberg that the findings of her video game research shouldn't be an excuse to lounge in front of a screen and avoid homework.
“This is no excuse for binging,” she said. “We know that kids who spend a lot of time on computers do less well at school. If you spend too much time on this new media, you spend less time on homework and you will do less well.”
For more information on Bavelier and her research involving video games, check out her TED talk: