Introduction to Psychology
Cognitive Benefits of playing Video Games
Mayur Mahendrakumar Jain
In recent years there has been a plentiful research done examining whether playing games (e.g. First Person Shooter, Third Person Shooter, Action, physically active video games etc.) improve brain’s cognitive abilities. Numerous studies have shown that video-game players outperform non-video-game players on tests of memory, recognition and time. Unsworth et al. (2015) examined the subjects in extreme-group analysis as well as full-range analysis. Even though multiple studies have shown positive relation between video-game playing and cognitive abilities improvement, Unsworth and the team (2015) found no such relations. The study by Green et al. (2017) serves as a critique to the statistical approach and methodologies followed by Unsworth et al. (2015). This paper also takes a look at active video games (exergames) which have recently became popular due to freedom and entertainment offered by them and their effects on cognitive functioning.
In the recent years, there has been an explosion in the field of gaming and its effects on cognition abilities. Studies have found that video-game players outperform non-video-game players on tests of reaction time, memory and perception (Blacker ; Curby, 2013). Even though multiple studies have shown positive results, some studies have failed to show any increase in cognitive abilities of video-game players (Irons, Remington ; McLean, 2011). Most of the studies have used small sample sizes to compare video-game players and non-video-game players and also have methodological and statistical errors(Green et al., 2017). It is possible that inconsistencies in results are due to small sample sizes which also result in Type 1 errors. Furthermore, most studies have used extreme-group designs. In extreme-groups, non-video-game players are considered to be playing less than 1 hour of games per week while video-game players are the ones who play more than 5 hours of games per week (Unsworth et al., 2015). These subjects in similar groups are treated as same when they are not. Video-game players’ group can consist of a subject who plays 6 hours of games per week or can be someone who plays 20 hours a week. This results in inconsistent results and produces errors in final results. Also, in extreme-group-designs casual gamers are completely omitted. Unsworth et al. (2015) in their study have tried to avoid such discrepancies by selecting two groups with large sample sizes consisting of full range of subjects (non-video-game players, casual players and video-game players).
Study by Unsworth et al. (2015)
Two experiments were performed with different sample sizes. The purpose of these experiments was to find correlation between playing video games and increased cognitive abilities.
A total of 252 subjects were selected and were asked to fill out a questionnaire. The study was conducted in 2 hour sessions with 1 to 6 subjects per group. In the first experiment by Unsworth and McMillan (2014), the subjects were asked to complete the tasks such as reading and operation span, attention-response test, number and letter series and advanced matrices. All these tasks were computerized. The subjects filled out questionnaires after completing the tasks (Unsworth & McMillan, 2014).
The results from above experiment for extreme-group analysis showed that video-game players outperformed non-video-game players (Unsworth & McMillan, 2014). However, when zero-order and latent correlations were measured using full range of subjects, above results did not hold. Unsworth and McMillan (2014) also discovered that the only relation between gaming experience and cognitive skills was relation between shooter and action game experience and fluid intelligence. However, these effects should be interpreted cautiously as previous studies have found no such effects and sample size of this experiment was rather small to come to a steady conclusion. Thus, it can be concluded that the relations between video games and cognitive abilities were weak to non-existent(Unsworth & McMillan, 2014).
First experiment performed by Unsworth and McMillan (2014) had two possible limitations. The questionnaires used were categorical and sample size was small with all the participants coming from same university which might be the reason why only weak relations were found between playing video-games and cognitive abilities (Unsworth et al., 2015). To understand and minimize the errors from first study another experiment with larger and more general sample size was performed by Unsworth et al. (2015). A total of 586 subjects from four different universities were selected. The experimental procedure included three sessions lasting 2 hours each with similar tests that were carried out by Unsworth and McMillan (2014). A few more tasks were performed during the experiment to better understand the effects of gaming on the participants (Unsworth et al., 2015).
With larger and continuous sample size Experiment 2 provided similar results to that of Experiment 1. The relation between playing video-games and fluid intelligence was not found to be significant casting doubts on the assumption that playing video-games improves cognitive abilities.
A study by Green, C. S. et al. (2017) : Critique of Unsworth et al. (2015)
In their article, Green et al. (2017) point out the shortcomings of the study performed by Unsworth et al. (2015). According to Green et al. (2017), the approach taken by Unsworth et al. (2015) was problematic in case of specific data set for three reasons: assuming positive relations between experience in a gaming genre and performance on a cognitive task, not taking into account gaming experience before the previous year as it has been noticed that gaming experience stays with the subject for longer period of time as compared to sports and linear correlation was assumed during analysis of data between hours of games played per week and cognitive abilities as there clearly exists a non-linear relation between practice induced skill improvement and time. Along with the issues discussed above the questionnaires used in both experiments performed by Unsworth et al. (2015) were not suitable to classify subjects as gamers or non-gamers.
Study by Stanmore et al. (2017): Exergames and its effects on cognitive functioning
This study focused on recently popular video games called exergames. Exergames are the games that use body movements to track its user. These games are also a form of exercise. This study by Stanmore et al. (2017) focused on bigger sample size as well as variety of subjects which included users which used exergames for entertainment, healthy old adults and subjects with neurological impairments. The study was conducted on a total of 926 participants and used Randomized Control Trails (RCTs). The average age of participants was 69 years and study was conducted across multiple countries. The exergame sessions were conducted over 10 weeks with each session lasting anywhere between 15 to 60 minutes. The gaming systems included were, virtual kayaking, interactive dancing, cycling and multiple games on Nintendo Wii (Stanmore et al., 2017).
The study showed improvements in cognitive functions of participants. The functions that improved were executive functions, visual and spatial abilities and inhibitory functions. This study also showed that exergames outperformed the real life physical activities, e. g., cycling in interactive environment produced better results that stationary cycling sessions.
Although there are significant doubts about the results obtained by Unsworth et al. (2015), there are also positives such as use of large sample sizes and larger task batteries. To address the questions about relation between playing video-games and their effects on cognitive abilities above steps need to be taken along with designing specific questionnaires for subjects, methods to describe and classify games and players, experience associated with gaming and taking into consideration the non-linear aspect of learning video-game skills. From the study performed by Stanmore et al. (2017) it can be seen that different games affect different cognitive skills and also depend on the user and environment they are under. Hence, future studies must be conducted depending upon the types of games and not the mechanics they fall under.
Blacker, K. J. & Curby, K. M. (2013). Enhanced visual short term memory in action videogame players. Attention, Perception, & Psychophysics, 75, 1128–1136.
Green, C. S. et al. (2017). Playing some video games but not others is related to cognitive abilities: A critique of Unsworth et al.(2015). Psychological science, 28(5), 679-682.
Irons, J. L., Remington, R. W. & McLean, J. P. (2011). Not so fast: Rethinking the effects of action video games on attentional capacity. Australian Journal of Psychology, 63, 224–231.
Stanmore et al. (2017). The effect of active video games on cognitive functioning in clinical and non-clinical populations: A meta-analysis of randomized controlled trials. Neuroscience & Biobehavioral Reviews, 78, 34-43
Unsworth & McMillan, B. (2014). Similarities and differences between mind-wandering and external distraction: A latent variable analysis of lapses of attention and their relation to cognitive abilities. Acta Psychologica, 150, 14–25.
Unsworth et al. (2015). Is playing video games related to cognitive abilities? Psychological Science, 26, 759–774.
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