Friday, July 5, 2013

Positive Cognitive Effects from Video Game Practice




Abstract
There have been several studies undertaken to show the negative effects of video game use and more particularly the negative effects of violent video games. However, a deeper search of scholarly articles reveal studies which claim that video games serve useful and meaningful purposes in our lives and can even provide it’s users with various cognitive benefits.  This literature review will look at some selected purported positive cognitive benefits from practice with video games. This review is for the purpose of bringing a greater understanding of the potential cognitive benefits of video games, which could aid in the creation and development of future video games and similar video therapy. Included in the studies examined is evidence that participants with video game practice have improved spatial ability, processing speed and memory capacity.  These studies include examining spatial recollection, spatial depth cues, spatial rotation, and spatial location and navigational skills.  These studies also examine the attentional benefits of video games including attentional capacity, decreased attentional blink time, and quicker response time to visual stimuli.


Proposed Positive Cognitive Effect from Video Game Practice:
Improved Spatial Abilities and Attentional Benefits
Rebecca Colleen Christie and Daughter
Rebecca Colleen Christie, a resident of New Mexico, was charged with second degree murder when she allowed her three-and-a-half-year-old daughter to die from malnutrition and dehydration (Meeks, 2011).  Christie proclaimed her devastation that she would never see her child grow up.  Christie’s daughter, Brandi Wulf, weighted just 23 pounds at the time of her death, 8 pounds lower than the national average for three-year-old children in the United States (Kuczmarski et al., 2002).  Brandi had been so hungry that she resorted to eating the cat’s food.  The cause for such gross neglect was attributed to the fact that Christie, her mother, spent most of her time on the online video game World of Warcraft and in online chat rooms (Meeks, 2011).
Such anecdotes often are widely published in the media and fuel public opposition to video games. However, in juxtaposition, many claim video games saved their lives. Online, there are communities, websites, groups, and forums dedicated to discussing how video games help individuals through depression, aggression, grief, drug abuse, alcoholism, suicidal thoughts, and social isolation.
When video games first started being introduced in the late 1940’s they generally consisted of slow paced games with single pixels lighting up on the screen.  They were primarily novelty items not well known to the public.  Video games did not enter into mainstream society until around the 1970’s and even then it was primarily geared towards a narrow market of male juveniles.  However, video games are no longer just for male adolescents.  According to the Entertainment Software Association (2014) 59% of Americans play video games.  The average video game user is 31 years old and has been playing for 14 years.  Of all video game users, 48% are women while 32% are over 50 years old, which is over triple the 1999 statistic that reported  9% of all video game users were over 50 years old (Entertainment Software Association, 2011).  Video games have become an integrated part of western culture, and there are signs that it will continue to gain greater prevalence in society.
Entertainment Software Association Facts 2011

            Video games are utilized for recreation and have effects not often considered.  During the early 1980’s, video games were thought to be a non-violent aggression output, relaxing, and good for neurological benefits such as hand-eye coordination, attention span, motivation, and cognitive abilities (Kestenbaum & Weinstein, 1985). On one hand, as early as 1985 studies were published implicating video games with higher aggression, neuroticism, daydreaming, as well lower frustration tolerance (Kestenbaum & Weinstein, 1985).  Such studs have been continued until this time and have shown substantial evidence showing that video games affect neurobiology and behavior (Engelhardt, Hilgard, & Bartholow, 2015; Greenfield, 2009; Olson, 2010; Subrahmanyam & Greenfield, 2008; Williams, Yee, & Caplan, 2008).
In recent years, much media and scholarly attention has been focused on some purported negative effects of video games.  Some of the most common claims claim video games increase aggression (Engelhardt, Bartholow, Kerr, & Bushman, 2011; Teng, Chong, Siew, & Skoric, 2011; Valadez & Ferguson, 2012), depression (Valadez & Ferguson, 2012), desensitization (Engelhardt, Bartholow, Kerr, & Bushman, 2011;Greitemeyer & McLatchie, 2011), decreases empathy (Montag et al., 2012), mental and physical health (Mentzoni et al., 2011), and as such produces various negative social behaviors.  However, less well-known claims include that video games aid in developing a thicker cerebral cortex (Haier, Karama, Leyba & Jung, 2009; Kühn et al, 2014), increased SAT scores (Richardson, Powers, Bousquet, 2011; Terlecki & Newcombe, 2005), increased hand-eye coordination (Granek, Gorbet, & Sergio, 2010; Griffith, Voloschin, Gibb, & Bailey, 1983), increased civic behaviors (Ferguson & Garza, 2011), decreased nightmares (Gackenbach, Ellerman, & Hall, 2011), increased relaxation (Whitaker & Bushman, 2012), increase pro-social behaviors (Greitemeyer, Osswald, & Brauer, 2010), increased compassion (Horne, 2011), can help cure amblyopia (i.e. lazy eye) (Li, Ngo, Nguyen, & Levi, 2011) and various other effects (Donohue, Woldoff, Mitroff, 2010; Coyne, Padilla-Walker, Stockdale, & Day, 2011).  While there has been much research into the effects of video game use, it is likely most video consumers spend little time thinking about the neurobiological and behavioral changes video games can affect. 
Video games have often been characterized as a simple waste of time that decreases pro-social behaviors and increases aggression and violence. However, just as video games vastly differ in style, content, objective, and nature, so do they vary in neurological and behavioral influences.  Some video games focus on cooking, farming, and helping people, while other video games have their focus on war, assassination, robbery, and theft.  Some video games immerse participants in highly realistic three-dimensional interactive virtual environments, others offer simple two-dimensional puzzles or mazes, still others offer representations of board or card games, or even text-based interactions. To label all video games with any specific outcomes is rarely possible and is usually limited and problematic. This paper does not seek make universal claims about video games but rather show some possible positive cognitive effects of video game use.  Further understanding of possible cognitive benefits of video game use could allow for more beneficial and informed production of video games and contribute to the video game regulatory process.  This will aid the video game industry to maintain positive effects of video games use while minimizing and regulating negative aspects.
For this paper we have operationally defined positive effects of video games, as any advantageous mental or cognitive changes presumably resulting from the exposure and usage of video games.  The specific effects examined here include: spatial analysis and response time, mental spatial rotational abilities, spatial location and navigational abilities, attentional capacity and allocation ability, distractions, distractional recovery and attentional focus, and split attention abilities.

Spatial Cognitive Abilities and Video Game Usage
Of the benefits purported of video games is improved spatial processing speed and memory capacity.  Spatial ability is defined by Lubinksi and Benbow (2009) as “the ability to generate, retain, retrieve, and transform well-structured visual images”.  Thus a spatial cognitive benefit of video games would be defined as any ability or capacity that would increase processing tasks or comprehension of spatial matters which have resulted from video game usage.
Spatial Analysis and Response Time
Boot, Kramer, Simons, Fabiani, and Gratton (2008) found evidence that frequent video game users performed better at the spatial 2-back task than non-frequent video game users while not sacrificing accuracy.  In the spatial 2-back task, participants viewed displays in which letters would appear for 500ms one at a time at different spatial locations with a 2000ms interval between each appearance (Braver et al., 1997).  The participants were instructed to press a particular key if the letter shown was in the same spatial location as the letter displayed two previous or to press a different specified key if the location was different than the letter displayed two previous.  Frequent video game users were found to be faster but not more accurate in identification of letters.  This is significant as in most studies there is a positive correlation between accuracy and response time; the longer it takes someone to respond the more accurate they are.  However, this study, and others (Dye, Green, & Bavelier, 2009a; Dye, Green, & Bavelier, 2009b) suggests that through the practice of video games one can increase in spatial processing time while not sacrificing any accuracy in response. 
The ability to quickly analyze and respond to spatial visual stimuli without sacrificing accuracy aids in any task that requires spatial cognitive abilities including tasks such as estimating the container size to use for leftovers, predicting the trajectory of a thrown football, determining whether one can fit into a tight space while driving a vehicle, sculpting, painting, playing with Lego or building blocks, and hand-eye coordination tasks such as catching, grabbing, picking up, or sports (Eliot, 2002; Nolen, 2003).
Mental Spatial Rotational Abilities

In this same study mentioned previously (Boot, Kramer, Simons, Fabiani, & Gratton, 2008), the authors performed a second experiment where they tested mental rotational abilities of participants. Mental rotation is a skill used in several every-day activities such as reading maps, using tools, packing a box, trying to fit food into the fridge, playing games such as chess, arranging furniture, driving in traffic, and playing sports (Moreau, Mansy-Dannay, Clerc, & Guerrién, 2011). In this study, participant’s mental rotational abilities were analyzed by presenting two shapes on a screen and instructing participants to press one key to indicate if the shapes were the same or a different key if they were not.  The shapes were rotated, thus making it more difficult to perceive if they were indeed the same shape.  To determine if they were the same shape, the participant would have to mentally rotate one of the two shapes and compare it to the other shape to see if they were the same.  The study recorded the speed in which the participants responded and the accuracy to which the participants achieved.  Frequent video game demonstrated faster and more accurate identification in every rotational task than non-frequent video game users.  This suggests that video games have positive effects on spatial rotation processing.
However, there is an issue with this study to keep in mind when reviewing it: frequent video game users were mainly male, and the novice video game users were female. Studies have suggested that females and males have differing spatial abilities (Casey, Nuttall, Pezaris, & Benbow, 1995; Cherney, Bersted, Smetter, 2014; Geary, Saults, Liu, & Hoard, 2000; Quaiser & Lehmann, 2002; Terlecki & Newcombe, 2005).  This is acknowledged in the study, and they discuss the potential error in their differential calculations.
Additional research by De Lisi and Wolford (2002) supports Boot et al.s’ the hypothesis that video games increase spatial rotation.  They took third grade boys and girls and had them complete a two dimensional mental rotation test.  Their initial results were recorded as the “pre-test” scores.  They then divided them in two separate groups and took one group (the experimental group) and had them use video games that involved the use of mental rotation.  They took the second group (the control group) and had them use video games that did not involve the use of mental rotation skills.  They then tested all the children in a paired sample test using the same two dimensional test they had taken previously.   These test results were recorded as the “post-test” scores.  The experimental group attained better post-test than pre-test scores while this was not the case for the control group.  These and other studies (Cherney, 2008; Cherney, Bersted, & Smetter, 2014; McClurg & Chaille 1987; Quaiser-Pohl, Geiser, & Lehmann, 2006; Spence & Feng, 2010) provide evidence that video games can increase mental spatial rotation ability. 

Spatial Location and Navigational Abilities
A study done by Richardson and Collaer (2011) examined the differences of spatial location and navigational abilities between frequent video game users and non-frequent video game users.  In this study, they performed two similar tasks; in the first task participants traveled through a virtual maze, and in the second task different participants traveled through a virtual campus.  Both environments had intermittent markers which clearly displayed a number.  The participants were told to remember the markers location and corresponding numbers.  After the participants reached the end, they were then returned back to the start and asked to indicate, or point, where the now non-visible numbered location was.  The pointing error for frequent video game users were significantly less than that of the non-frequent video game users demonstrating a greater spatial tracking ability in the frequent video game users.  This suggests that frequent video game users are useful at developing spatial orientation and navigation skills.
Navigational and orientation skills are among the most basic of tools which are utilized every day.  When trying to find a location in an unfamiliar area, these navigational abilities help aid in locating routes and addresses (Evans, 1980; Gärling & Golledge, 1987).  These skills are utilized while driving, walking, shopping in a store or a mall, or doing anything in relation to self-transportation. 
Implication of Spatial Cognitive Abilities and Video Game Usage
These studies display some of the spatial benefits of using video games.   Boot, Kramer, Simons, Fabiani, and Gratton (2008) show evidence that indicates that frequent video game users may be quicker at mental spatial processes without sacrificing accuracy.  Further, De Lisi and Wolford (2002) show evidence indicating that video game practice increases the ability and processing time of mental rotation.  Richardson and Collaer (2011) present evidence that video game practice can increase navigational and orientational skills.  If these benefits are utilized in the future of the video game industry, they could help the average person in everyday tasks (Eliot, 2002; Evans, 1980; Moreau, Mansy-Dannay, Clerc, & Guerrién, 2011; Nolen, 2003).  It is purported that spatial thinking is an important predictor of STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics) achievement and careers (Humphreys, Lubinski, & Yao, 1993; Shea, Lubinski, & Benbow, 2001; Wai, Lubinksi, & Benbow, 2009).  Spatial video game application can also help in several specialized practical settings such as military, flight training.  In the military, spatial training would be advantageous in teaching individuals how to navigate and orient themselves more efficiently in any given terrain, particularly in locations rarely if ever visited (Evans, 1980; Gärling & Golledge, 1987; Richardson & Collaer, 2011).  In flight training, spatial training helps pilots to more accurately and quickly understand and navigate through spatial depth (Boot, Kramer, Simons, Fabiani, & Gratton, 2008; Cherney, 2008; Richardson & Collaer, 2011).  
Neurobiologically, spatial processes seem to be distributed through several areas of the brain including the frontal lobe, parietal lobe, occipital lobe, and cerebellum (Ivanitskii, et al. 2015). Such distribution is likely reflective of complex processes and a multifractal nature that go into spatial reasoning. Further research should be done to attempt to see the neurobiology effects of video games on these affected areas.
Attentional Benefits and Video Game Usage
            Attention is defined as a concentration of the mind on a single object or thought.  Thus an attentional benefit of video games would be defined as any perceived ability or capacity that would increase performance of attentional tasks resulting from video game usage. 

Visual Attentional Capacity and Allocation Ability
            In a study, Green and Bavelie (2003a) provided evidence that frequent video game users had a greater attentional capacity than non-frequent video game users.  Because of this additional attentional capacity, frequent video game users were able to allocate the additional attentive resources to other attentive tasks. Such visual attentional abilities are important for many everyday tasks such as driving vehicles (Green & Bavelier, 2006; Gopher, Weil, & Bareket, 1994) and learning (Lansu, Cillessen, & Karremans, 2014; Sasson, & Touchstone, 2014).
Green and Bavelie (2003a) preformed a study that indicated that video game usage affects the Attentional Blink phenomenon.  Attentional Blink occurs when one is presented with a sequence of visual stimuli in rapid succession at the same spatial location on a screen and is asked to identify two specific and different visual stimuli.  Participants will often detect the first stimulus but fail to detect a second stimulus if it is presented quickly thereafter (generally within 500ms) (Raymond, Shapiro, & Arnell, 1992).  As the time between two stimuli decreased, participants were less likely to or notice the second stimuli, that is, they were more likely to demonstrate an attentional blink.  The reason for this attentional blink is explained in that the initial task requires attentional resources which results in a short refractory period afterwards where there are not enough attentional resources to allocate to subsequent tasks.  However, if an individual has significant attentional resources after the initial task, the excess resources can be allocated to subsequent tasks.
Green and Bavelie (2003a) found that the attentional blink of frequent video gamers was consistently shorter than that of non-frequent video game users.  This indicates that frequent video game users may have a greater attentional capacity than non-frequent video game users.  Thus, frequent video game users can allocate the excess attentional resources to additional tasks.  
This is further supported by a study done by Yuji (1996) in which he tested children’s reaction times for discrimination tasks of a combination of colors and shapes. In this study, children would be presented with an image for two seconds which displayed four shapes (randomly assigned from a pool of two shapes), each of which would be randomly assigned one of two colors (e.g. a pink big-eyed frog, or a green small-eyed frog) and then would be displayed with a second image of the same kind.  The participants would then be asked to report if the two images were the same or not.  Those who frequently used video games were significantly faster than non-frequent video game users.  This is an indicator that frequent video game users could have additional field of view benefits.  These and other studies (Gopher, 1992; Gopher, Weil, & Bareket, 1994; Green & Bavelier, 2006) show evidence that video games can increase visual attentional abilities.
Distractions, Distractional Recovery, and Attentional Focus
Similarly, Chisholm, Hickey, Theeuwes, and Kingstone (2010) preformed a study that suggests that frequent action-video-game users dealt with visual distractions in tasks better than non-frequent action-video-game users.
 The participants were asked to look for a visual stimulus. When the participants saw the stimulus they were to report it by pressing a key on a keyboard.  The response time and accuracy was recorded electronically.  As the participants preformed their tasks, there was a 50% chance that a distracter would be introduced.  The study found that frequent action-video-game users performed all tasks significantly quicker than non-violent-video-game users, while not sacrificing accuracy.  This study is supported by Green and Bavelier (2006) who found that frequent video game users were less susceptible to visual distracts than non-video game users.  These studies indicate that either action-video-game users are better at ignoring visual distractions, or they are better at recovering from these distractions.     
The ability to ignore or to overcome distractions is a very practical and advantageous tool.  Individuals utilize it every day in various forms.  One can overcome distractions when they are able to focus on the single voice of the person talking in a busy room full of other voices (Münte, Spring, Szycik, & Noesselt, 2010), or while driving on the street they are able to ignore the distractions around them and focus on potential dangers and concerns on the road. 
Split Attention Abilities
Greenfield, DeWinstanley, Kilpatrick, and Kaye (1994) conducted two experiments which found evidence that frequent video game users have a better ability to split their attention between visual stimuli.  In their experiment target visual stimuli that appeared in two separate locations on a computer screen.  The stimulus was presented 10% of the time at the first position (the low probability position), 80% at the second position (the high probability position), and 10% at both simultaneously.  The participants were asked to report on the location of the image(s). The response times and accuracy of the participants were electronically recorded.
The study took two groups, one of frequent video game users and one of non-frequent video game users, and established a baseline or neutral response time for each group.  Frequent video game users and non-frequent video game users preformed at similar levels responding to the high probably position relative to their established baseline.  However, frequent video game users showed no attentional costs (which would be manifest in a slower response time) at the low probability position, whereas non-frequent video game users did show additional attentional costs (i.e. a slower reaction).  Frequent video game users also had significantly faster response times than non-frequent video game users at both the 10% and 80% positions.
This study is supported by an experiment by Trick, Jaspers-Fayer, Sethi, and Naina (2005) in which they took 97 individuals (6-19 years old) and had them visually track multiple stimuli (1-4 trackers) on a computer screen.  These tasks generally required paying attention to more than one object at a time, thus splitting attention.  The study found that the participants that were frequent action or sport video game users were better at tracking than those that were not.  This is consistent with other studies examining the effects of video games on multiple tracking and split attention (Green & Bavelier 2006).
Implications of Attentional Benefits and Video Game Usage
These studies, demonstrate some of the attentional benefits of using video games: green and Bavelie (2003a) provided evidence that frequent video game users had a greater attentional capacity and ability to allocate attentional resources, Chisholm, Hickey, Theeuwes, and Kingstone (2010) suggest that frequent action-video-game deal with visual distractions in tasks better, Greenfield, DeWinstanley, Kilpatrick, and Kaye (1994) found evidence that frequent video game users have a better ability to split their attention between more than one visual stimulus.  Attentional abilities are utilized to improve cognitive processes and speed.
Similarly to Spatial Cognitive, the implicated neurobiologically for our constructs attention are widely distributed throughout the brain. Piers, Horowitz, Morocz, Wolfe, and Livingstone (2009) studied brain area activation as participants attempted to track multiple objects. They found several stimulated brain areas including the frontal eye fields, anterior intraparietal sulcus, the posterior intraparietal sulcus, and the MT complex.

Implications and Suggestions for Further Research
Some may be tempted to brand video game as worthless, a waste of time, and should be discarded or rejected by society.  However, such blanket statements throw away all the beneficial and advantageous effects of video games.   Further, rejection of video games seems implausible; video game prevalence is on the rise, and it shows no sign of decreasing (Entertainment Software Association, 2011; Entertainment Software Association, 2014).  It makes practical sense and is more realistic to adapt to video games than to try to reject them.  These studies examined in this review demonstrate that there are various cognitive benefits from using video games. These show potential for the benefit of humanity, potential that could be lost if thrown away or simply ignored.  Video games are already being utilized for military training (Hsu, 2010), pilot training (Blain, 2007), brain training (Bohannon, 2010; Nouchi et al., 2012), classroom teaching (King, 2003; Watson, Mong, & Harris, 2011) and more (Greitemeyer & Osswald, 2010).  If the causes for these positive cognitive effects are found and isolated, then they can be integrated into similar future productive video games.  As more positive effects are woven into video games and more negative effects are isolated, minimized and/or removed, video games will provide youth and adults the best possible gains and positive effects.
            Further research should be done neurobiologically to more fully understand the physiological changes happening in the brain to solicit such cognitive differences. Little research currently examines such data, likely due to the multifaceted nature of the cognitive benefits. With so many areas of the brain influenced it seems difficult to examine particular areas independently of one another.
    



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