In case you didn’t get the chance to experience just how frustratingly difficult an attention-related test can be in our, previous article, do try this particular one1.
What you should have experienced there is the Attentional Blink paradigm – a phenomenon first described in 1992, noting that people have difficulty observing a specific target if it comes at less than 300 ms after another, non-target stimulus. Simply put, we are easily distracted and experience some latency in processing quickly incoming stimuli.1
Recent research suggests that the unexpected solution to overcoming this apparent limitation is a favorite past-time of the past 50 years: video games.
A 2018 study claimed that action video games have the ability to improve visual selective attention – that is, noticing the location of a moving target from a sea of visual stimuli. Using both expert gamers and non-experts (noobs, in specialized terminology), researchers measured behavioral and electrophysiological changes following a 1 h League of Legends playing session. Results showed improvement in visual selective attention after the gaming session, both in experts and non-experts. However, experts showed superior visual selective attention to begin with, suggesting that gaming creates some significant, measurable and long-term changes to the part in the cortex responsible for visual attention.2
Going further, a 2020 study set out to analyze the temporal component of visual selective attention – that is, how accurately a target is detected within a sequence of rapidly and consecutively presented stimuli. This is the component of the visual selective attention that is being assessed by an attentional blink test, like the one you may have taken above. Similar to the previous study, behavioral and electrophysiological analyses were performed on both expert League of Legends players and non-experts. Expert players appeared to outperform non-experts in the attentional blink tests. Furthermore, upon EEG testing, it appeared that gamers experienced faster information processing and distributed their attention towards the target better than non-experts.3
In a video game, players must continuously engage with dynamic displays, process complex sequences of events, take efficient decisions in a time-sensitive manner as well as coordinate their hands to press the correct keys. Over the years, studies have proved that this intensive and demanding task, especially done long-term, can result in a variety of cognitive enhancements, particularly concerning visual attention and executive control.
Numerous benefits are cited for action video gaming experiences – faster information processing, better and faster filtering of irrelevant information, better contrast sensitivity, superior hand-eye coordination, quick task switching, better visuospatial processing and executive control. Video game players also outperform non-players in certain tasks, especially those related to visual selective attention, such as detecting and tracking fast moving objects, identifying certain stimuli, enumeration, feature search, spatial distribution of attention and oculomotor control.3,4
Some of these advantages, such as faster reaction times, better visual discrimination or improved spatial visualization have also been reported in children,4 raising the difficult question of what role video games play in neurodevelopment – do they have a positive or negative end-result, are they superior or inferior to classical games? All is subject to important research at the moment, with numbers of video game players constantly rising, especially although not exclusively in the younger population.
With all these exciting effects video games seem to elicit in the brain, one may be inclined to view them almost as a potential tool to improve overall cognitive performance. This is not new, and has formed the basis of “brain training” programs aimed at the adult population, in hopes of slowing or reversing cognitive decline.
One meta-analysis set out to assess the effect video-game training had on healthy adults. Coming up with 20 studies, which amounted to about 300 participants in the training group, and 300 in the control group, the study evaluated not only the games’ ability to improve overall cognitive processing, but also whether this improvement varied with age. Results claimed a moderate increase in overall cognitive ability and small benefits in specific cognitive domains, with better results for younger adults.5 Other studies, however, claim there is no conclusive evidence so far that commercially available brain-training programs improve general cognitive function.
Understanding these apparently contradicting results comes down to asking the right question. And the question here is not whether training improves performance on a certain cognitive task – it most likely does. The actual question is whether this improved performance subsequently translates to benefits in other activities or overall performance.
A large-scale 2010 study asked this precise question. For six weeks, 11 430 participants trained on various tasks designed to improve planning, reasoning, memory, attention and visuospatial skills. At the end of the training, their performance in each individual task had improved. Nevertheless, these beneficial effects did not translate to better-than-expected performance on any untrained tasks, even if they were cognitively related.6
Furthermore, a 2018 study suggests that brain training and video-games research may be over-estimating effects and be subject to publication bias (a name for the fact that non-significant results are often not published, leaving only the impressive results to be read). The article repeatedly points out that, while this is a widely spread activity that may well impact some of the players’ skills and task performance, we need to take a rational and objective approach to assessing the effect video games actually have on overall cognitive capacity.7
Perhaps the more exciting prospect in this field is that studying gaming - a very precise, timed and measurable learning activity - may help shed light onto how learning induces long-term effects on the brain. It all comes down to how we turn a cognitive process into the structural and molecular alterations which form the basis of neural plasticity.
And we have good reason to be optimistic about that.
Numerous and diverse structural differences were reported, through neuroimaging studies, in the brains of long-term gamers versus controls. Perhaps the most obvious ones are variations in the attention network – comprising structures such as the anterior cingulate cortex, an area that consistently lights up during play due to its role in coordination of top-down attentional processes. Besides this, it has been proven that gamers have the ability to better direct their attentional resources and not fall for distractions as easily. Accordingly, this has been associated with higher activity in attention control regions within the frontal lobe or prefrontal cortex.8
Visuospatial skills have been associated with enlargement in the right hippocampus, while navigational skills were linked with higher degrees of activity in the entorhinal cortex. The ability to perform fast task switching and proficiently use the working memory were associated with activation in prefrontal regions as well.8
Regarding connectivity, several fMRI studies showed both higher levels of activity and better functional integration in different regions of the insula, where networks involved in attention and sensorimotor processing reside, presumably due to how quickly and precisely gamers have to complete sensorimotor responses governed by permanent attention.9 Another study showed a higher degree of functional connectivity in the Salience Network and Central Executive Network, essential structures for attention and working memory, suggesting yet again that action video games promote plasticity in these areas.10 Yet another paper claims that action video games even have an effect on the structure of white matter in the prefrontal networks, sensorimotor networks, as well as limbic system.11
An undeniable link exists between gaming as a past-time activity and the reward system. How could it not? Gaming is an activity that provides continuous feedback, in a dynamic environment, with progressively raised difficulty. You always have a new problem to solve. Accordingly, this is thought to trigger familiar circuits between the cortex and the basal ganglia and give the dopamine-mediated sensation of reward. On top of that, the emotional storyline or the wins and losses trigger the limbic system, creating an enticing and immersing experience.8
Unsurprisingly, this association with the reward system is thought to be the basis for the main downfalls of video game playing. Perhaps the most obvious one is the risk of addiction, which is in process of being included as a psychiatric diagnosis in the DSM as it bears similarity to all other impulse-control disorders.8
Another main concern relies on the violent nature of some video games – prompting worries that, in long-term exposure, it may lead to desensitization, a lack of empathy and even aggressive behaviors. However, current research shows that empathy scores are not, in fact, affected by video game playing, nor is the ability to distinguish real from virtual violence in healthy individuals.8
A more elusive effect of intensive game playing is that of flow – a term used to define a state of such intensive focus on a particular task, that it becomes intrinsically motivating and may lead to loss of awareness of the external world or the passage of time.8
It is worth noting that, while literature assessing the beneficial effects gaming has on cognitive capacity and task performance is substantial, not the same can be said for studies evaluating the negative effects. Only a handful of papers mention lower performance in certain cognitive functions associated with gaming – namely altered inhibitory control associated with aggressive gaming, deficits in social information processing and even lower verbal IQ.8
Ultimately, we will need to pay close attention to how gaming, a now very popular activity, can influence learning skills or even particular task performances, especially as technology grants them the ability to become endlessly fascinating and challenging environments to spend time in.