You’re moving ever so cautiously through the abandoned village, with one eye on the radar and the other trained on the vacant window ahead. Then in an instant the enemy appears, causing you to spray your weapon in the general vicinity, guided partly by your action hero instincts but mostly by pure hope. Thinking through these video game situations may take less than a second, but new research shows it can also enhance real-world learning capabilities, enabling the brain to better anticipate sequences of events.
Researchers in brain and cognitive sciences at the University of Rochester were exploring the ability of the brain to predict what is about to happen, something they call “templates of the world.” This might refer to a turn in a conversation, anticipating road traffic or more complicated tasks like performing surgery.
Led by professor Daphne Bavelier, the team sought to compare the visual performance of those who play action video games and those who don’t. It found that the action-gamers performed at a higher level, with their brains using a better template for the job at hand.
But to ascertain whether those with better templates were led to high action video games, rather than the games leading to better templates, the team enlisted a group with negligible gaming experience. It directed half to play first person shooters, such as Call of Duty, and the other to play non-action games, such as The Sims. With all participants undergoing a pattern discrimination task before and after, the scientists observed that action game players could better build and fine-tune templates on the fly, something they equated to better learning.