Does Video Game-Playing Sharpen Mental Skills and Speed?

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Originally posted on May 7, 2015.

Despite concerns that video game-playing teaches social scripts for violence, recent research also suggests a cognitive benefit: sharpened visual attention, quickened reaction speed, and improved spatial abilities, such as eye-hand coordination. Experienced game players tend to be perceptually quick and astute.

But a just-released pair of studies, by University of Oregon researcher Nash Unsworth and five collaborators, casts doubt on claims that video game-playing enhances cognitive abilities. The new studies confirmed a cognitive benefit when comparing extreme video-game players with nonplayers. But across broader and larger samples of people, game-playing correlated near zero with various cognitive abilities. “Overall, the current results suggest weak to nonexistent relations between video-game experience—across a variety of different games—and fundamental cognitive abilities (working memory, fluid intelligence, attention control, and speed of processing).”

Two of the study’s co-authors, Zachary Hambrick and Randall Engle, have also published studies and research reviews that question the popular idea that brain-training games enhance older adults’ intelligence and memory. Despite the claims of companies marketing brain exercises, brain training appears to produce gains only on the trained tasks (without generalizing to other tasks). Moreover, though we might wish that thousands of hours of practice could transform us into superstar athletes or musicians, Hambrick’s other research shows that superstar achievers are distinguished at least as much by their extraordinary natural talent as by their self-disciplined daily routine.

The opposite of a truth is sometimes a complementary truth. Educational interventions that aim to enhance grit, or that promote a “growth mindset” (rather than fatalistically seeing intelligence as fixed), also boost achievement. And in yet another new study, British children who display self-control become, as adults, less vulnerable to unemployment.

So, video-game and brain training exercises appear to have limited cognitive benefits. Natural talent matters. Yet the disciplined ability to delay gratification and to sustain effort also matters. “If you want to look good in front of thousands,” goes a saying attributed to Damian Lillard, “you have to outwork thousands in front of nobody.”


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