Wednesday, June 08, 2005

Gamers and the Brain

We were driving to a restaurant last weekend.

“The latest issue of Discover magazine references all kinds of studies that say playing games make you smarter,” I said.

“Really?” Gloria asked, which is her code for “I don’t think so.”

“There are all kinds of cognitive benefits,” I said. “Pattern recognition, visual perception, problem solving. And they help kids, too, if the parents are involved and not just using the game as a babysitter.”

“Oh, no,” Gloria said. “Does that mean I have to start playing games because of Eli?”

“Not at all,” I said, “but I’ve been playing games for the ten years we’ve known each other and ten years before that. Clearly, my superior gaming brain has left yours far behind.”

“Duhhh,” she said.

“Don’t worry,” I said. “I’ve been working on a primitive set of hand signals so that we can still communicate.” Gloria showed me her own hand signal. “Yes, I’ve already incorporated that one.”

“I can’t believe it,” she said. “Not playing games has made me obsolete.”

“Don’t worry. I’ll still need someone to help me wheel my gigantic brain around. I’m working on a kind of cart with very simple pictograms to explain how it operates.”

“You’re writing about this, aren’t you?” Gloria asked. “I demand that you make me witty and charming.”

“All you’ve given me to work with is ‘Duhhh’,” I said. “I’ll do what I can.”

I had a conversation years ago when I told Gloria that someday researchers would find out that gaming was a learning stimulus, not a detriment. I mean, who’s learning more—the guy who watches COPS or the guy playing a game? Any game. The “leisure time” of gamers is filled with far more mentally stimulating activity than people who sit and watch television. Depending on which game and which book, it can even be more stimulating than reading. So is it any surprise that researchers are now finding a link?

Here’s an overview of the Discover magazine article (July 2005). It’s not available on their website yet, but it will probably get added in a few weeks when the August issue hits newsstands.

Here’s the short version: all these researchers were never exposed to games. In the last few years, some of them have been, and they were all blown away by how difficult games really are. That led them to do some specific research on how playing games affects our brain. I take quite a bit of this research with a grain of salt until it’s been duplicated by other researchers, but it’s all interesting nonetheless.

In the early 1990s, Richard Haier, a professor psychology at the University of California at Irvine, tracked cerebral glucose metabolic rates in the brains of Tetris players using PET scanners. The glucose rates show how much energy the brain is consuming, and thus serve as a rough estimate of how much work the brain is doing.

What Haier found is that after novices spent a month playing Tetris, improving their performances by a factor of seven, their glucose levels actually dropped. In other words, they were doing far more complex tasks with less mental effort.

It appeared that the escalating difficulty of the game trained the test subjects to mentally manipulate the Tetris blocks with such skill that they barely broke a cognitive sweat completing levels that would have utterly confounded them a month earlier.

Researchers believe that games, quite by accident, use one of the core principles of learning—to challenge people to the edge of their abilities. As it turns out, ramping difficulty as a game progresses is an ideal method for mental stimulation.

The complexity of games is also mentioned. Incredibly, they even mention the poster boy for games-haters—Grand Theft Auto. Even while you’re running around being anti-social, there is a tremendous amount of complexity involved in choosing mission strategy and fulfilling the various objectives. And pretending to be anti-social isn’t going to make me be anti-social any more than reading A Clockwork Orange would.

Here’s one more interesting study mentioned in the article, relating to visual perception. Gamers and non-gamers were tested for visual recognition ability (the ability to quickly recognize details). The differences between the scores of gamers and non-gamers were absolutely huge. So the researchers tried a second test.

When Green tweaked the tests to make them challenging enough so the gamers wouldn’t have perfect scores, the nongamers sometimes performed so poorly that their answers might as well have been random guesses.

Interestingly, when the researchers had the non-gamers play Medal of Honor for a week, their visual recognition scores improved.

And here’s my favorite, a study about whether gaming skills can be applied in real-world situations.

James Rosser, director of the Advanced Medical Technology Institute at Beth Israel Medical Center in New York City, found that laparoscopic surgeons who played games for more than three hours a week made 37 percent fewer errors than their nongaming peers…

This is getting pretty long, so I’m just going to mention one last study, but there are several more in the article. This last study appears in a book published by the Harvard Business School Press and studies three groups of white collar professionals: hard-core gamers, occasional gamers, and non-gamers.

The gaming population turned out to be consistently more social, more confident, and more comfortable solving problems creatively. They also showed no evidence of reduced attention span compared to nongamers.

Pretty amazing stuff, really. Like I said, these studies are certainly not the final authority on the subject, and people with addictive personalities can certainly play games in an obsessive manner, but there are positive aspects to games that people who don’t play them are just beginning to understand. It also raises the question of what all the people who decry video games as the devil are going to do now. Yes, I wish games were less violent, but I also wish that critics would acknowledge the legitimate learning opportunities and mental stimulation that games offer. This could form the basis for a real discussion, not just grandstanding. Collaboration, in almost all cases, leads to more profound results than confrontation.

Oh, and one more thing. Within the next decade, I promise you there will be a study tying gamers to reduced levels of Alzheimer’s disease. I guarantee it.

By the time I wind up in a rest home, it will be packed to the gills with gaming consoles.

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