two boys playing video games

Games for Training Perceptual and Cognitive Functions

An intriguing study out of Nanyang Technological University has implications for us in HF/E. They were interested in whether training people with video games could improve a variety of perceptual and cognitive skills. It turns out, as with most things in HF/E, the answer is that “it depends.”

Previous evidence points to a causal link between playing action video games and enhanced cognition and perception. However, benefits of playing other video games are under-investigated. We examined whether playing non-action games also improves cognition.

They used four different games that varied along so any dimensions that this variable seems hopelessly confounded. But on a very surface level there were differences in how much they drew on strategic decision making skills (Star Front Collision) versus hand-eye coordination and perception (first person shooter games, arcade style games). They recruited non-gamer participants so that they all started with a low baseline of game experience, simulating a training scenario. They also used a specific training schedule: one hour a day, five days a week, for four weeks – a total of 20 hours of training. This is also relatively reflective of real training in many domains. They tested the participants a full week after the last training event, to make sure that it was not transient learning or priming that led to any improvements they found.

The researchers found some specific improvements. Some games improved visual search. Some improved visual tracking. Some improved the ability of participants to switch decision strategies when the game changed. They defined this last one as “executive function” and claimed that the results show broad transfer, but I am a little skeptical of this generalization. Still, the results show promise for using simple and inexpensive games (downloadable on iTunes for any phone or tablet) to train useful capabilities.

Image credit: “brothers playing video games together” by sean dreilinger used under CC BY-NC-SA 2.0

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