I’m a little embarrassed to admit this, but I love video games. I’m a grown man, with a wife and bills and responsibilities, but I still make time on a regular basis (I’m not going to admit how often, lest my advisors read this) to fire up Halo 4, sign on to Xbox Live, and jump into the fray with hordes of teenagers and fraternity brothers in virtual battle. I once had to have my wife hide a game (the Elder Scrolls: Oblivion; if you’ve played, you know how addictive it was) from me so that I’d take a break from playing - and she still married me!
The fact that I’m embarrassed by my love of gaming suggests that I don’t think of it as a meaningful activity, and that’s a little bit true: I don’t play video games to better my life; rather, I play them when I’m bored, or procrastinating, or just in need of an escape. But research over the last decade has shown that playing video games can have a positive effect on important perceptual and cognitive skills, and may even help kids with developmental disorders.
To start with, a 2003 study out of the University of Rochester showed that playing video games - in particular, action video games, like adventure games or shooters - can improve visual attention. This is pretty intuitive: action games usually have a lot of rapidly moving images on the screen, so you need to develop your ability to focus if you want to succeed at the game. Remember Duck Hunt? If you weren’t paying attention, you missed the ducks, but if you kept playing long enough, eventually you developed a hypersensitivity to the smallest bit of movement on the screen.
In 2010, the same team at Rochester published a new paper showing that action video games can improve gamers’ ability to make “probabilistic inferences” (also known as statistical learning), which is a fancy way of saying that gamers are good at detecting patterns. Again, this makes intuitive sense: video games are programmed to be full of rhythms and patterns, and identifying those patterns is often a key to gaming success. This study had a twist, too. Gamers turned out to be better at generalizing their learning across domains than nongamers, meaning that if gamers demonstrated their expertise at pattern detection on a purely visual task (identifying which way a group of dots was moving on a screen), they were better at using that expertise on a separate auditory task (identifying which way sounds were moving across different speakers).
Both the Rochester studies showed that playing video games can have a positive effect on perception and learning in adults, but what about kids? A study from a team in Italy earlier this year found some very intriguing effects for gaming in kids with reading disabilities. Researchers found that as little as 12 hours of action game playing (in this case, the Wii game Rayman’s Raving Rabbids) significantly improved kids’ reading abilities across a variety of domains, from reading speed and accuracy to nonword reading. Keep in mind that the game the kids played had nothing to do with reading.
This is a big deal! Kids love video games. If that love of video games can actually help with a reading disability, then that opens the door for a whole range of new treatment opportunities to improve reading skills. I don’t suspect that this will lead to dedicated “video game time” for elementary school children, but you never know.
Despite all this research, I still feel guilty about gaming too often. There was a time when I viewed a place atop the Halo leaderboards as a badge of honor, but that time has passed. Still, it’s nice to know that gaming does have some benefits outside of bragging rights among your buddies. I imagine that when I become a parent, there might be a day when I ask my kids, “Did you do your homework?” and they respond by showing me their latest high score.