Video games stay on the brain?

Thinking of sneaking in a few rounds of Halo during your lunch break? You may want to reconsider—the video games we play may have long-lasting effects on how we study and work.

According to a new study in the journal Perception, different genres of video games “prime” us for certain ways of thinking. Scientists at Wheaton College in Norton, Mass., found that, after playing Unreal Tournament, a fast-action first-person shooting game, people were faster but less accurate at spatial and perception tasks. In contrast, after sitting down to Portal, which involves solving puzzles, people became more accurate but slower at the follow-up tasks.

In some ways, this is not too surprising. Scientists have long known that, over time, video games—like any form of entertainment—cause changes in the brain. As Douglas Gentile
writes in a recent Cerebrum piece
, these effects are many and can have both positive and negative influences. Fast-paced games can increase reaction times and perceptual discrimination, just as violent video games can blunt typical brain reactions to the suffering
of others.

But psychology professor Rolf Nelson, who led the study, speculates that the priming effect might have significant effects on our day-to-day work and school lives, since the changes show up after only an hour of play. Such a short chunk of time, he says, suggests that action fans may return to homework assignments with increased speed at the cost of making more mistakes; puzzle aficionados might become more methodical and accurate at work but fail to meet deadlines.

Determining whether that is actually the case will require significantly more study, of course. Video games are complex and varied and rarely have a single mode of play, while the tasks presented to research subjects don’t really reflect what goes on in the modern workplace. It’s also unclear how long the effect lasts and whether people can become “immune” to it. But such studies demonstrate the usefulness of research that parses out the exact effects of video games and other technologies on the brain. If confirmed, Nelson’s work suggests that some frantic Call of Duty action might help me meet pending afternoon deadlines—OK as long as my editor ensures an extra-sharp eye with some rounds of Tetris and Minesweeper.

-Aalok Mehta

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