Game-Based Learning

Action Video Gameplay: Benefits and Dangers

While evidence suggests that action video games enhance higher-order brain functions, the violence built into most commercial titles is far from beneficial.

June 30, 2016 Updated September 23, 2016

Think those fast-paced, first- and third-person shooter games like Call of Duty and World of Warcraft are rotting kids' brains? Looking for some strategies to get them to switch their focus to learning? Turns out that these action video games may actually be good for your students' brains and their ability to learn.

A growing body of behavioral and neuroscientific evidence is revealing the positive benefits of action video gameplay for improving a wide range of abilities, from simple perceptual and motor skills to higher-level abilities such as cognitive flexibility, attentional control, and learning. However, a troubling body of evidence shows that the violence found in most commercial action games is associated with an increase in aggressive thoughts and behavior. Researchers are working diligently to maximize action video games' positive benefits and minimize their adverse effects.

What Are the Benefits of Action Video Gameplay?

Since the first report of the positive impact of action video gameplay more than a decade ago (Green & Bavelier), researchers have continually uncovered the breadth this activity's benefits, including:

Note, however, that other studies (Boot, Kramer, et al; Gaspar, Neider, et al; van Ravenzwaaij, Boekel, et al; and Murphy & Spencer [PDF]) have failed to find such effects.

Importantly, these benefits are documented for skills performed well beyond the confines of the video games, so it seems that action video gameplay trains people on a wide variety of skills that are important to real-world learning.

In fact, a recent study found that action-gamers were shown to be "better learners," and had become better by playing action games. In this study, the pioneers of this research field -- Daphne Bavelier and Shawn Green -- demonstrated that they could turn non-gamers into gamers with 50 hours of action gameplay over nine weeks. When these new gamers were tested on their ability to learn several new tasks (Bejjanki, Zhang, et al), they learned them at a much more accelerated pace than the control group, who trained for the same number of hours on non-action video games such as The Sims. Surprisingly, the performance boost was long-lasting, with improvements evident several months to a year later.

When researchers peek into the brains of action-gamers to find the brain basis of these effects, they find some interesting differences compared to the brains of non-gamers. In one study, scientists showed that action-gamers’ brains could suppress distracting information better, allowing for increased focus on the goal at hand (Mishra, Zinni, et al). In another, action-gamers' brains were more efficient at directing attention during a demanding task, requiring attention networks to work less hard to perform at the same level of ability (Bavelier, Achtman, et al).

Altogether, the research shows that action-gamers seem to perform better on a wide variety of tasks, and do so with more efficient brain networks. So how might this work?

What Leads to These Benefits?

Researchers propose that the fast-paced, dynamic, unpredictable nature of action video games might be training people to search for and identify patterns in the environment, building the metacognitive skill of learning to learn. In other words, because these games require players to make decisions based on lots of noisy information, they generate strategies to pick up regularities and patterns that seem to teach them how to use this ability to more quickly and effectively learn new tasks. That learning may stem from the ability to more effectively filter out distraction as well as identify more goal-relevant information. Cultivating this skill for classroom and real-world learning would allows students to figure out where to focus their limited attention for maximal learning impact.

Something often attributed to a rising prevalence of video gameplay is the increased diagnosis of attention disorders such as ADD and ADHD. Researchers concerned about this potential relationship have investigated whether action-gamers show more impulsive attention behavior and/or less ability to maintain sustained attention (the abilities typically implicated in ADD and ADHD). Surprisingly, this has not been found to be the case. When assessed by the Test of Variables of Attention (TOVA), action-gamers are found to be faster, but not less accurate than non-action gamers (Dye, Green, & Bavelier). Thus, action-gamers seem to make more correct decisions in the same amount of time than non-action gamers, and therefore aren't necessarily more trigger-happy or impulsive than their non-action gaming/non-gaming peers.

What About Violent Video Games?

As a researcher who sees the tremendous promise in action video games, I find it unfortunate that most commercial action games are infused with moderate to high amounts of violence. In a 2008 study of 2,500 young people, Douglas Gentile and colleagues reported that teens who played more violent video games reported more aggressive thoughts and behavior, and more arguments with teachers.

This and many other such findings has led researchers who study the positive impacts of action video games to redouble their efforts toward understanding how to build games for impact in the educational and therapeutic domains. There are several efforts to create games that leverage the observed benefits while removing the adverse effects of the violence. But these researchers are equally committed to doing no harm, so stay tuned for their results after the games have been fully vetted.

What Do Researchers Recommend?

You'll be hard-pressed to get any recommendations about titles and hours of play from the researchers who study action video games, because all commercial games are rated R due to violence, with the exception of Splatoon, the only action video game rated for kids ten years and older. While an action-gamer is defined as someone who spends five or more hours per week on action video games, it's important to note that Daphne Bavelier spends most of her time explaining how their research findings are no excuse for binging on video games, and that her own and others' training studies show that short, regular doses of gameplay are all you need for therapeutic or learning impact.

What Are the Take-Home Messages?

The learning benefits of playing fast-paced, action video games are now well-established and thought to stem from the game characteristics of variety (choices, decisions, and environment) and the need to exert cognitive control over attention (sometimes hyperfocusing on task goals, sometimes spreading attention to search for targets, mostly suppressing irrelevant distractors and rapidly switching between task goals). These benefits are thought to train the metacognitive skill of learning to learn, which allows students to more rapidly understand how to flexibly navigate a new learning goal. But while all these benefits may help support learning goals in the classroom, the amount of action gameplay should be tempered if the game includes heavy violence. New games designed by neuroscientists and learning scientists and developed by professional game designers are in the pipeline, so be on the lookout.


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