Video mayhem enlivens decision making

Action gamers acquire advantage in evaluating sensory information.

Don’t tell that guy blasting rampaging zombies to smithereens in his favorite video game that he’s getting lessons in efficient decision making.

Wait until he’s done to deliver this buzz kill: Playing shoot-‘em-up, action-packed video games strengthens a person’s ability to translate sensory information quickly into accurate decisions. This effect applies to both sexes, say psychologist Daphne Bavelier of the University of Rochester in New York and her colleagues, even if females generally shun video games with titles such as Dead Rising and Counter-Strike.

Action-game players get tutored in detecting a range of visual and acoustic evidence that supports increasingly speedy decisions with no loss of precision, the scientists report in the Sept. 14 Current Biology. Researchers call this skill probabilistic inference.

“What’s surprising in our study is that action games improved probabilistic inference not just for the act of gaming, but for unrelated and rather dull tasks,” Bavelier says.

Unlike slower-paced video games that feature problems with specific solutions, action video games throw a rapid-fire series of unpredictable threats and challenges at players. Those who get a lot of practice, say, killing zombies attacking from haphazard directions in a shifting, postapocalyptic landscape pump up their probabilistic inference powers, Bavelier proposes.

Psychologist Alan Castel of the University of California, Los Angeles, calls the new study “thorough and intriguing.” Much remains to be learned, though, about whether and to what extent video-induced thinking improvements aid other skills, such as pilots’ ability to land airplanes in challenging conditions.

Bavelier’s group tested 11 men who reported having played action video games at least five times a week for the past year and 12 men who reported no action video game activity in the past year. Participants in each group averaged 19 to 20 years of age.

Men in both groups looked at dot arrays on a computer screen and had up to two seconds to indicate with an appropriate keystroke the main direction in which each set of dots was moving. Arrays ranged in difficulty, with some having almost all dots moving in the same direction and others having slightly more than half the dots moving in the same direction.

Action gamers responded substantially faster than nongamers to dot arrays at all difficulty levels, especially tough ones, while detecting dots’ motion direction as accurately as peers did.

Game players showed a similar speed advantage on an auditory task. Volunteers heard background noises through headphones and had to decide whether oscillating sounds of varying frequencies were heard on the right or the left.

Some gamers may have superior probabilistic inference skills to begin with, but an additional experiment indicates that playing action games amplifies an ability to analyze sensory information, Bavelier says.

Her team randomly assigned seven men and seven women to play two action video games for a total of 50 hours, with no more than two hours of play per day. Another four men and seven women followed the same rules but played a video game that involves directing the lives of simulated characters to achieve certain goals.

None of the participants, who averaged 26 years of age, reported having played video games of any type in the previous year.

Both groups showed marked improvement in game-playing skills after completing the assignment. But action gamers responded markedly faster to dot and noise tasks than did the group that played the simulation game, with comparable accuracy.

Bruce Bower

Bruce Bower has written about the behavioral sciences for Science News since 1984. He writes about psychology, anthropology, archaeology and mental health issues.

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