Psychiatry: Getting Serious About Video Games

Can gaming help the brain in making decisions?
July 25, 2013

It’s every kid’s dream come true: science supporting the idea that playing video games improves brain functions. Researchers from Duke’s Visual Cognition Lab found that hours spent with video-gaming consoles likely train the brain to make better and faster use of visual input.

“Gamers see the world differently,” says Greg Appelbaum, an assistant professor of psychiatry in the Duke School of Medicine. “They are able to extract more information from a visual scene.”

The researchers flashed arrangements of eight letters for one-tenth of a second to 125 participants who were either non-gamers or intensive gamers. After a delay ranging from 13 milliseconds to 2.5 seconds, an arrow appeared, pointing to a spot where a letter had been. Participants were asked to identify which letter had been in that spot. At every time interval, intensive players of action video games outperformed non-gamers in recalling the letter.

Previous research has found that gamers also are quicker at responding to visual stimuli and can track more items than nongamers. When playing a game, especially a first-person shooting game, a gamer makes “probabilistic inferences” as quickly as possible about what he or she is seeing—good guy or bad guy, for example, or moving left or right. With time and experience, the gamer improves.

"Gamers see the world differently."

The researchers examined three possible reasons for the gamers’ apparently superior ability to make probabilistic inferences. Either they see better, retain visual memory longer, or have improved their decision-making. But gamers forget unused information just about as fast as everyone else—both groups in the study quickly forgot what the letters had been.

Instead, gamers appear simply to be starting with more information. It’s possible that the gamers see more immediately and are better at making correct decisions from the information they have available. If so, video games may be useful tools to train the brain into better decision-making. But to address this question, the researchers will need more data from brainwaves and MRI imagery to see where the brains of gamers have been trained to perform differently on visual tasks.