Play is one of the cornerstone activities of brain development — through it, children get to observe, understand, alter and apply the laws and systems that govern our world. A child may not know what gravity is, but he’ll know that objects tend to fall down when you throw them up from tossing the ball around or from falling in the park.
The last few generations have had access to a kind of play unique in our history — virtual games. The ability to create whole new worlds, tailored to our own liking, in which to play and interact with one another creates unique conditions that our brain has to interpret and adapt to. It’s little surprise then that gaming has become a pervasive part of culture in many parts of the world. I myself, while not identifying strongly with gamer culture per say, do play a lot of them, enjoy talking about them with friends and I will miss a party for a particularly well-made game (or a few of them); probably most of you reading this are the same.
With the variety of games available today varying from those designed to enhance mental fitness, solve real world problems all the way to ones meant for pure entertainment, they have diverse and profound effects on our brains. A new article in the October 1st issue of Policy Insights from the Behavioral and Brain Sciences, published by SAGE, argues that the specific content, dynamics, and mechanics of individual games determine their effects on the brain and that the long-criticized action video games might have particularly positive benefits.
“The term video games refers to thousands of quite disparate types of experiences, 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. A useful analogy is to the term food – 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,” the researchers wrote.
The study was carried out by Drs. C. Shawn Green and Aaron R. Seitz, with a focus on the cognitive effects of video games. Their data indicates that action video games — the ones that include quickly moving targets whizzing in and out of view, that require the player to take accurate split-second decisions in often cluttered environments or relying on incomplete data — have a particularly positive cognitive impact, even when compared to software designed specifically for cognitive training, the so-called “brain games,” especially in areas such as perception and cognition — making you better at perceiving information from the environment, and putting all the pieces together to form an appropriate answer.
“Action video games 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,” the researchers commented. “Brain games typically embody few of the qualities of the commercial video games linked with cognitive improvement.”
Green and Seitz noted that while action games in particular have not been linked to problems with sustaining attention, research has shown that total amount of video game play predicts poorer attention in the classroom. Furthermore, video games are known to impact not only cognitive function, but many other aspects of behavior – including social functions – and this impact can be either positive or negative depending on the content of the games.
“Modern video games 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. Video games, 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.”