Waste of time or brain trainer?

The cognitive benefits of playing video games

It’s often said that the youth of our society wastes their time playing video games; ostensibly a purely diversionary activity with no inherent merit. However, as someone with a youth misspent in this way, I have to disagree. There are many ways I feel video game-playing may serve me well in the future. For example, should powerful aliens invade our planet and challenge our species to a Street Fighter II tournament, killing all those who they defeat, I for one would fancy my chances. However on a more mundane level, research published in Nature indicated that video game brings cognitive benefits that transfer to activities other than the game itself.

Waste of time or brain trainer? credit: blindfutur3

Flanker compatibility

In this test, participants are distracted on a task by stimuli, which they have to ignore. The task becomes progressively more difficult, so it’s a good way of testing attentional capacity. When video game players were tested against non-players, they performed better on this task, suggesting they have greater attentional capacity.

Enumeration task

In this second task, squares flash on a screen briefly, and participants simply have to say how many there are. If there’s a small number of squares, you just ‘know’ how many there are. This is called ‘subitizing.’ As more and more squares are displayed you eventually lose your ability to subitize and must count the squares manually.

Video game players could subitize greater number of squares than non players (4.9 vs 3.3 on average), again this is consistent with the idea that video games bring beneficial effects — or at least, that video game players possess these benefits. In this case, the benefit is being able to focus on more distinct objects at once.

Widening the training zone

The next task was the “Useful Field of View” task, where the aim is to locate a certain target amongst a field of distracting ones. However, the twist here is that the field of view is extended to three eccentricities — 10, 20, and 30 degrees. The field of view when playing video games typically reaches around 20 degrees, so this is a good way to see whether the attentional benefits video game players have extends beyond the range of view they experience whilst playing. The results indicated that the players outperformed non-players at all ranges.

As with the previous tests, this is tricky to interpret. On one hand it could indicate that video games bring attentional benefits, and that these benefits extend beyond the normal field of vision experienced while playing. On the other hand, it could simply indicate that some people take to video game playing because they have better attentional qualities to begin with. Because this task is further from the conditions of the video game playing itself, you might reason that it is more in line with the latter. It’s impossible to say because this was a quasi experiment — there was no randomisation of group assignment.

Quick thinking – the attentional blink task

A common aspect of the games played by the participants is the need to act fast under pressure (see below for a list of games). To see if there was a difference on this ability between video game players and non-players, a variation on the attentional blink task was used.

In this task, a stimuli is displayed, followed 200-500 ms later by another. Typically, people have trouble processing the second stimuli because of fixation on the first. In the variation, participants had to detect a certain following stimuli from a sequence which included a few distractors. Again, the video game players out-performed the non-players.

Incidentally, experienced meditators also do better on this task.

Experimental task

As mentioned earlier, it’s impossible to determine cause and effect conclusively with this type of study. By selecting specific groups (players versus non-players) instead of randomising, you never know if you’re simply selecting groups who differ on the variable you’re studying to begin with. For instance, do video games attract or create people with enhanced attentional abilities.

To get around this, and experimental task was performed, where a group was told to go play an action video game, while another went off to play a puzzle game. The action video game players did better on the enumeration, useful field of view, and attentional blink tasks after training.

Video games are beneficial for attention?

While these results are consistent with the idea that video game playing brings cognitive benefits, the studies do have some limitations. Mainly, the sample size was pretty low. The enumeration task had the highest number of participants, and even that had only 13 per group. The others has only eight or nine per group.

For the quasi-experiments, this makes it even more likely that the results were due to the samples selected, despite the fact that they were highly statistically significant. For the experiment, the same applies. The significance levels were higher in the latter but that’s expected given it was only for 10 days.

Also, the transfer is fairly similar. Action video games and these tasks still involve sitting and looking at a screen. We don’t know if the results would be different in other situations in more natural settings. But overall it’s nice that by video game playing might, possibly, have benefits beyond helping me defeat an invasion by 2D beat-em-up-obsessed aliens.

Which games did they play?

In the tests comparing video game players with non-video game players, here’s a list of games that the players were into. Note that this study is from 2003!

  • Grand Theft Auto 3
  • Half-Life
  • Counter-Strike
  • Crazy Taxi
  • Team Fortress Classic
  • 007
  • Spider-Man
  • Halo
  • Marvel vs Capcom
  • Roguespear
  • Super Mario Cart


Green, C. S., & Bavelier, D. (2003, May 29). Action video game modifies visual selective attention. Nature, 423, 534 –537. pdf

One thought on “The cognitive benefits of playing video games

  1. You raised some pretty good points Warren, but after considering the significant levels of desensitization the gamers would experience after playing the games you mentioned, I’d worry more about them running amok than aliens any day. Improved cognition or not, let them keep playing for the sake of us all.

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