Games make you smarter at what?

Picture 070 2 copyIf you have been paying any attention to news about using games for education, you’ve heard of Dr. Daphne Bavelier. There have been numerous articles repeating what she summarized in her TED Talk  – that research shows playing video games (the first person shooter type of games like Black Ops) improves brain function.

So recently I revisited this topic, trying to find if there were additional research articles to clarify these results. Unsuccessful, I listened to Dr. Bavelier’s presentation again. There was a nagging voice in the back of my mind that her words resembled something I had read before. As she repeated “step into the lab and really measure” each time before quoting research findings to debunk some myths about video games, the light switch came on.

I recalled a chapter I had read in Lev Vygotsky’s work on his well-known zone of proximal development theory. He described the short-comings of the stimulus-response method of research that was favored by other psychologist of his time. It depended on subjects responding to an artificial stimulus in a set of highly controlled tests which resulted in measurable data, but did not give a real clue to how the brain processes were developed. In other words, this method revealed only what subjects were able to do and not how they learned to do it. He referred to this as an attempt to fossilize a dynamic process.[1] This was the same result I was seeing with the research that Dr. Bavelier was describing.

According to Dr. Bavelier the skills gained were not just used in games but in the real world.  I heard how subjects  played games that improved  low contrast vision, which would help them drive better in the fog. [2] I expected to learn about the fog driving experiment, but it never occurred. Despite claims that the skills gained by gaming were real world skills, the tests were all presented in the same manner as games are played – on computer screens. The real world skills were simply extrapolated possibilities.

Gamers watched identical yellow smiley faces move across a screen, and identified if a particular one was one of those that randomly turned blue and sad (or psuedo-randomly as there are no real random events on a computer). They could take in information faster on this simulation of watching a group of children than non-gamers. However, that neither proved that they are more efficient or better at keeping track of real children. Why simulate? Put individuals from both groups in a classroom and have them teach a lesson while keeping a checklist noting the number of times a specific child performs a number of different actions that are targeted for change.  That is a real life task.

Every example of increased cognitive ability through gaming – such as claims that people who played electronic games were less distracted by surroundings or more efficient at a task – was shown by their performance at another game-like activity confined to a screen.[2] There was no mention of determining causation in these particular skills – no observational studies that would reveal whether people were drawn to video games because they could do these kinds of tasks in a virtual world or the other way around. The only time that this question of causation was mentioned was in connection with the basic skill of low contrast vision.[2]

In another experiment people who did not routinely play video games had to select the correct drawing of a 3-dimensional object rotated into another position from similar drawings. After several hours of game playing this skill improved.[2] I wanted to know how much more they improved than in the control group – those who took the same computer based test both times without the game playing in between. Both groups should have better scores the second time according to the practice effect. However, there was no mention of the control groups scores, leaving me to wonder if they existed.

A well designed experiment would have a randomly selected population that did not play video games (similar average age, gender and education level). This population would be tested on a range of skills: simulated situations presented by computers, situations using real people and materials, and established cognitive assessments. Then, half would play video games daily for an extended period of time and the others would not. At the end of the specified period both groups would be retested in same manner as the first time to measure the difference. There was no evidence that this occurred.

Finally, if there is no harm  in playing why did Dr. Bavelier advice moderation in playing at the end of the TED talk? The addictive quality of video games was openly admitted and that quality does cause problems. The only conclusion that I can gather from her research is that playing video games improves a persons ability in experiments measuring video game-like skills. But I imagine Lev Vygotsky would have looked at the experiments and gathered that there was a problem with the method.

[1] Vygotsky, L.S. Mind in Society, Cambridge, MA Harvard University Press, 1978 p. 59-62
[2] Daphne Bavelier: Your brain on video games. Filmed Jun 2012 • Posted Nov 2012 • TEDxCHUV (viewed Jan 10, 2013 and Feb 21, 2013)

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