Contrary to conventional beliefs that playing video games is intellectually lazy and sedating, it turns out that playing these games promotes a wide range of cognitive skills. This is particularly true for shooter video games (often called “action” games by researchers), many of which are violent in nature (e.g., Halo 4, Grand Theft Auto IV). The most convincing evidence comes from the numerous training studies that recruit naive gamers (those who have hardly or never played shooter video games) and randomly assign them to play either a shooter video game or another type of video game for the same period of time. Compared to control participants, those in the shooter video game condition show faster and more accurate attention allocation, higher spatial resolution in visual processing, and enhanced mental rotation abilities (for a review, see C. S. Green & Bavelier, 2012). A recently published meta-analysis (Uttal et al., 2013) concluded that the spatial skills improvements derived from playing commercially available shooter video games are comparable to the effects of formal (high school and university-level) courses aimed at enhancing these same skills. Further, this recent meta-analysis showed that spatial skills can be trained with video games in a relatively brief period, that these training benefits last over an extended period of time, and crucially, that these skills transfer to other spatial tasks outside the video game context. These training studies have critical implications for education and career development. A 25-year longitudinal study with a U.S. representative sample (for a review, see Wai, Lubinski, Benbow, & Steiger, 2010) established the power of spatial skills in predicting achievement in science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM). STEM areas of expertise have been repeatedly linked to long-term career success and are predicted to be especially critical in the next century (Wai et al., 2010). Preliminary research has also demonstrated that these cognitive advantages manifest in measurable changes in neural processing and efficiency. For example, a recent functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) study found that the mechanisms that control attention allocation (e.g., the fronto-parietal network) were less active during a challenging pattern-detection task in regular gamers than in nongamers, leading the researchers to suggest that shooter game players allocate their attentional resources more efficiently and filter out irrelevant information more effectively (Bavelier, Achtman, Mani, & Föcker, 2012). As summarized recently in Nature Reviews Neuroscience: “Video games are controlled training regimens delivered in highly motivating behavioral contexts . . . because behavioral changes arise from brain changes, it is also no surprise that performance improvements are paralleled by enduring physical and functional neurological remodeling” (Bavelier et al., 2011, p. 763). These changes in neural functioning may be one means by which the cognitive skills gained through video games generalize to contexts outside games. It is important to stress that enhanced cognitive performance is not documented for all video game genres. The most robust effects on cognitive performance come from playing shooter video games and not from, for example, puzzle or role-playing games (C. S. Green & Bavelier 2012). These cognitive enhancements are likely a product of the visually rich three-dimensional navigational spaces and the fast-paced demands that require split-second decision making and acute attention to unpredictable changes in context. These assumptions, however, remain somewhat speculative because the vast majority of video games include an enormous number of game mechanics intertwined, rendering specific hypothesis testing about these mechanisms extremely difficult. Moreover, it is virtually impossible to choose an appropriate control condition wherein all aspects of a game (e.g., visual stimulation, arousal induction, gameplay) are kept constant across conditions and only one cognitive challenge is manipulated (e.g., navigating three-dimensional space efficiently vs. inhibiting prepotent responses). Cognitive neuroscientists have just recently put out a call to game developers to design new games for testing hypotheses about the specificity of cognitive advances and the particular mechanisms on which they are based (Bavelier & Davidson, 2013). In addition to spatial skills, scholars have also speculated that video games are an excellent means for developing problem-solving skills (Prensky, 2012). Indeed, problem solving seems central to all genres of video games (including those with violent content). In-game puzzles range in complexity from finding the quickest route from A to B, to discovering complex action sequences based on memorization and analytical skills. Further, game designers often provide very little instruction about how to solve in-game problems, providing players with a nearly blank palette from which to explore a huge range of possible solutions based on past experience and intuitions. Prensky (2012) has argued that exposure to these sorts of games with open-ended problems (and other learning experiences on the Internet) has influenced a generation of children and adolescents growing up as “digital natives.” Instead of learning through explicit linear instruction (e.g., by reading a manual first), many children and youth problem-solve through trial and error, recursively collecting evidence which they test through experimentation. Only two studies have explicitly tested the relation between playing video games and problem-solving abilities; in both, problemsolving was defined in the reflective sense (e.g., taking time to gather information, evaluate various options, formulate a plan, and consider changing strategies and/or goals before proceeding further). One study, with World of Warcraft players, was correlational (Steinkuehler & Duncan, 2008), making it impossible to discern whether playing the game improved problem solving or people with better skills in the first place were drawn toward this type of open-ended role-playing game. The other study (Adachi & Willoughby, 2013) was longitudinal and showed that the more adolescents reported playing strategic video games (e.g., roleplaying games), the more improvements were evident in self-reported problem-solving skills the next year. The same positive predictive association was not found for fast-paced games such as racing and fighting games. Moreover, this latter study showed an indirect mediation effect such that playing strategic games predicted higher selfreported problem-solving skills, which, in turn, predicted better academic grades. More research is needed to tackle the causal question of whether and to what extent video games teach problem-solving skills and whether these skills generalize to real-world contexts. Finally, video games seem to be associated with an additional cognitive benefit: enhanced creativity. New evidence is emerging that playing any kind of video game, regardless of whether or not it is violent, enhances children’s creative capacities. For example, among a sample of almost 500 12-year-old students, video game playing was positively associated with creativity (Jackson et al., 2012). Critically, children’s use of other forms of technology (e.g., computer, Internet, cell phone) did not relate to enhanced creativity. However, this study’s cross-sectional design made it unclear whether playing video games develops creative skills or creative people prefer video games (or both). The story behind a recent breakthrough in biology research provides a nice illustration of how gamers’ superior spatial and problem-solving skills, as well as their creativity, all came together to solve a real-world, previously insoluble problem. In 2008, researchers at the University of Washington created an online game called Foldit (Cooper et al., 2010), allowing the public to play games in which they model the genetic makeup of proteins. At the end of a three-week competition in 2010, top-scoring players had generated phase estimates that allowed researchers to identify a rapid solution of the crystal structure for a monkey virus related to AIDS. The structure had eluded researchers for over 10 years; however, the nonlinear, cooperative, and creative problem-solving techniques used by these gamers seemed to be precisely the skills needed to finally solve this elusive problem. In summary, specific types of video games seem to enhance a suite of cognitive functions, some of which appear to generalize to real-world contexts. These data suggest that agendas to ban shooter games may be too simplistic. At the very least, the research on the negative impact of these games needs to be balanced with evidence for the cognitive benefits of these same games. We now turn to the motivational, emotional, and social benefits of playing video games. It is important to highlight an across-the-board difference in the amount, breadth, and quality of research that can be found on these topics. Whereas cognitive mechanisms may be more easily isolated and tested, the motivational, emotional, and social effects of gaming are more complex and harder to disentangle. Thus, research programs in these latter areas are only now beginning to gather steam. As a result, our claims about these latter benefits are more speculative, but the nascent research suggests immense promise for both theory development and practice.


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