Eye of the gamer
Study suggests how video games may influence visual perception.
As video games fly off the shelves this holiday season, new research reveals how different types of games affect people – and parents may want to take notice as they decide what games to buy for their kids.
In a paper published in the latest edition of the academic journal Perception, Rolf Nelson, a psychology professor at Wheaton who studies human visual perception, finds that playing different kinds of video games changes the way people think and approach their surroundings.
Nelson performed two different experiments in which participants played either a fast-action video game (Unreal Tournament) or a puzzle-solving video game (Portal). Before and after their gaming sessions, participants performed a task in which both speed and accuracy were emphasized.
People who played the action video game did tasks faster, but at the cost of being less accurate. Those who played the strategy game did things more accurately, but more slowly.
Nelson said the results could show that the kinds of video games that children and college students play might affect the ways they approach their school work or other tasks. For example, if they’re playing an action game and then switch to homework, they may try to blaze through their homework at the cost of making mistakes. Or if they play strategy games, they may work slowly, but turn in more accurate work.
“In fact, it is striking how dramatically these strategies can be shifted by a single hour of video-game play,” Nelson said.
He said the implications could also be felt in the workplace.
“The same thing that applies to kids might apply to adults. Workers who play action video games during their lunch hour may find that it affects the accuracy of their work soon after,” Nelson said.
The study, “Action and puzzle video games prime different speed/accuracy tradeoffs,” offers a rare look at the impact different types of video games have on cognitive and perceptual abilities. “While there has been a great deal of [research] focused on performance differences between non-video-game players and avid video-game players, we were interested in looking at the affects of playing different types of video games,” he says.
The research was co-authored by Ian Strachan, a 2009 psychobiology graduate at Wheaton.
“Results convincingly demonstrate a priming effect for two different types of video games,” Nelson says. “Playing Unreal Tournament, an action video game, resulted in faster reaction times and lower accuracy on a location task, while playing Portal, a puzzle game, resulted in slower reaction times and higher accuracy.”
According to Nelson, these results underscore the importance of studying the cognitive and perceptual consequences of video games in terms of the types of skills demanded from the particular video game under study. “It is also clear that generalized statements about how video games affect cognition are misleading,” Nelson says.
“Different genres affect perception and strategy in very different ways.” An action video game and a puzzle video game have very different demands, he says, and no doubt there are other demands of video games which fall into other categories. He notes that most studies on the perceptual effects of video games in recent years have utilized a particular genre, that of the fast-action first-person shooter (FPS). “However, it is misleading to base conclusions about video games in general on a single genre, just as it would be misleading to base one's conclusions about the effects of television by considering only crime shows.”
In recent years, video games have evolved into a number of distinct genres, Nelson says. “Although many games may overlap in genre, they are often broken down into categories such as sports, simulation, puzzle, FPS, role-playing, with each of these categories including several subgenres.” In the study of the effects of video-game play on perceptual and attentional processes, the relevant categorization into genres may be different than for other purposes, notes the Wheaton College professor.
“For example, the game Halo 3 has a science fiction theme, while the game Medal of Honor 4 has a military theme,” he says. “If they were films, they might be categorized into war and science-fiction genres.” However, the relevant aspect here is that they are both FPS games with a similar style of play--fast reactions, accuracy, and good spatial navigation being important for successful game play. “In order to make a serious effort at understanding the perceptual and cognitive effects of video games, it must be realized that the variety of video games is quite broad.”
Nelson, whose primary research focus is on visual perception and attention, says the project has led him to ponder the degree to which the type of effect demonstrated in this research manifests itself in everyday life: “How might video-game play affect the way in which students interact in the classroom?”
Perhaps students who have just played an action video game before class are less patient but faster in their interactions, while those who have played a puzzle game show a slower but more accurate mode of interaction.