Do Action Video Games Make Players Better Decision Makers?

By Andrew Moseman | September 14, 2010 10:48 am

Halo-_ReachHalo: Reach,” the newest installment in the long-running Halo video game saga, comes out today. While players are rampaging around in the digital universe and slaughtering everything in sight, they might be doing something else too: improving their decision-making skills.

Action-packed video games, including first-shooters like those in the Halo franchise, can lead people to make better and quicker rapid-fire decision, according to a Current Biology study by Daphne Bavelier and colleagues.

“What’s surprising in our study is that action games improved probabilistic inference not just for the act of gaming, but for unrelated and rather dull tasks,” Bavelier says. [Science News]

Bavelier’s team first rounded up 11 young men of about 20 years of age who were heavy action gamers, and another dozen who didn’t play. The scientists ran them all through a test in which they had to watch dots on a computer screen and indicate quickly, with a keystroke, which direction the dots were moving. The test is intended to measure what’s called probabilistic inference, synthesizing evidence from your surroundings to make a decision.

According to Bavelier, the gamers could do this much faster than the non-gamers. That proved true also for men and women Bavelier recruited who hadn’t played action games before, but did so as part of the study.

The participants in the test — including those who didn’t usually play action video games — were found to have improved inference skills after playing 50 hours, compared with a test group that didn’t play at all. [CBS News]

Any study that plays against the “video games are turning the youth into mindless zombies” stereotype is bound to attract headlines, but let’s be honest—this isn’t that surprising. What Bavelier’s team showed, essentially, is that people who spend their leisure hours with a game that demands rapid-fire decisions (and punishes failure) are good at making rapid-fire decisions. (Or, perhaps, that the probabilistic inference test is really just a rudimentary video game, and people who play video games are good at video games.)

The finding, however, adds to the growing body of evidence in defense of video games. Studies have shown that playing video games could improve hand-eye coordination and even vision, or that some time with the block-dropping distraction of Tetris might be ideal for someone with post-traumatic stress disorder. Bavelier says she didn’t see the same decision-making boost from strategy or role-playing games, arguing that with this particular benefit, there’s something specific about action-packed games:

“Unlike standard learning paradigms, which have a highly specific solution, there is no such specific solution in action video games because situations are rarely, if ever, repeated,” the researchers write. “Thus, the only characteristics that can be learned are how to rapidly and accurately learn the statistics on the fly and how to accumulate this evidence more efficiently.” [CNET]

As experimental psychologist and video game researcher Anne McLaughlin said during the video game roundtable featured in DISCOVER’s September issue: “Play is a very natural place to go for learning experiences. In video games there’s a structure of achievement and reward.”

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Image: Bungie

CATEGORIZED UNDER: Mind & Brain, Top Posts
  • Livia Blackburne

    It’s probably also worth noting that what is referred to as decision making here is a very low level decision. I haven’t seen this paper yet, but it seems like the task is almost perceptual. So it’s not like these video gamers are better at critical thinking or weighing difficult choices. They’re better at looking at a bunch of dots and deciding which direction they’re moving. Not surprising since they do a lot of motion processing in the video game.

  • Non-Believer

    This appears to study fairly similar decisions as the game. Not decision making generally. Basically the repeated practice of making predictive decisions about which way the enemy in the game will turn improves that ability to predict which way a dot will move. They are in fact the same skill.
    Does that translate into making better decisions that are not related to predicting direction and acting quickly on that decision? I don’t think they have shown that.

  • disagree

    google a story on a guy who played action and racing video games more than the casual gamer, because he was driving on the highway and made a split second decision regarding a semi truck that jack knifed, causing the top half of his car to be torn off by the trailer, if he hadn’t made the 100th of a second decision to duck his head he wouldn’t be alive. just like the military uses action games to train soldiers on making split second decisions regarding picking out targets and not shooting civilians, regardless, your brain has muscle memory when you practice at something for hours at a time. go play modern warfare 2 and tell me it doesn’t require skill, or that people who play those types of games are only good at making split second decisions in the game, and not at making decisions in reality.

  • Yeah, well…

    This just in, quarterbacks proven to make better passing decisions then those who don’t quarterback. Practice works.

  • Beth Terry

    One of the things I’ve observed is the ability of gamers to have a longer vision about what will happen if they make X move as opposed to Y move. They seem to have developed some neural pathways that deal with Consequences of choices far more quickly than non-gamers. I don’t have the scientific proof, but I have been observing this in Generation X and Y for some time. Thus I’m happy to see research being done on this. It will be exciting to see all the results as research continues. As “Yeah, Well…” points out, practice makes better quarterbacks. But it’s practice in a specific way that non-gamers don’t often have. Just as my puppies play to learn, these gamers are playing to learn skills that are vital for survival in an info-tech world.

    Now — if we can just get rid of the creepy video games – the ones that teach murder and mayhem as a normal behavior that’s rewarded… I look forward to schools jumping on this bandwagon and creating better video games as intense learning tools (hopefully far more sophisticated than the earlier attempts.)

  • Keith B

    Beth, there are already great games out there for you. I recommend you put Civilization IV or Civilization V in front of someone, or a Zelda game, or Mario. When you say “the ones that teach murder and mayhem as a normal behavior,” I wonder whether you want to apply the same criterion to other media: to film, to literature, to music? Would Tales from the Crypt make the cut? How about Jersey Shore? Or Lady Chatterly’s Lover?


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