Researchers examine video gaming's benefits

  • Published
  • By Bob Freeman
  • Office of the Oceanographer of the Navy
Think interactive video games are a waste of time or more suited for children? Think again. Research under way by the Office of Naval Research indicates that video games can help adults process information much faster and improve their fundamental abilities to reason and solve problems in novel contexts.

"We have discovered that video game players perform 10 to 20 percent higher in terms of perceptual and cognitive ability than normal people that are non-game players," said Ray Perez, a program officer at the ONR's warfighter performance department in a Jan. 20 interview on Pentagon Web Radio's audio webcast "Armed with Science: Research and Applications for the Modern Military."

"Our concern is developing training technologies and training methods to improve performance on the battlefield," said Mr. Perez, who holds a doctorate in educational psychology.

Mr. Perez described the war against terrorists as presenting significant challenges to warfighters on the ground because they must be able to adapt their operations to innovative and deadly adversaries who constantly change their tactics.

"We have to train people to be quick on their feet - agile problem solvers, agile thinkers - to be able to counteract and develop counter tactics to terrorists on the battlefield," Mr. Perez said. "It's really about human inventiveness and creativeness and being able to match wits with the enemy."

It's also about adaptability. Mr. Perez said this means "being able to work outside your present mindset, to think beyond what you have been taught, to go beyond your experience to solve problems in new and different ways."

Mr. Perez used the term "fluid intelligence" to describe the ability to change, to meet new problems and to develop new tactics and counter-tactics. Fluid intelligence, he explained, allows us to solve problems without prior knowledge or experience.

This raises the question of whether fluid intelligence is innate or can be developed and improved.

"For the last 50 years, fluid intelligence was felt to be immutable," Mr. Perez said, "meaning it couldn't be changed, no matter what kinds of experiences you have."

This, he said, is related to the idea of brain plasticity. "The presumption was that the structure of the brain and the organization of the brain are pretty much set in concrete by the time you are out of your teens."

It once was widely believed that after the age of 20, Mr. Perez said, that most humans had achieved their brain cell capacity, and that new brain cells were acquired at the expense of existing ones. But conventional beliefs about brain plasticity and aging are changing. The video game-like training programs at the Office of Naval Research, he noted, are producing surprising results.

"We know that video games can increase perceptual abilities and short-term memory," he said. They allow the player to focus longer and expand the player's field of vision compared to people who don't play video games, he said.

While there is empirical evidence of increased brain plasticity in video gamers, Mr. Perez said, the process behind it is not well understood. His belief, he said, is that the neural networks involved in video gaming become more pronounced, have increased blood flow, and become more synchronized with other neural networks in the brain.

"We're now looking for the underlying neural mechanisms that are responsible for these changes in behavior and in abilities," Mr. Perez said. "We're using various kinds of neural imaging techniques like [functional magnetic resonance imaging] that identify different areas of the brain that show activity when you're performing certain tasks, and we can begin to look at what area of the brain is active during the processing of video information.

"We think that these games increase your executive control, or your ability to focus and attend to stimuli in the outside world," he added.

Early indications suggest that cognitive improvements from video games can last up to two and half years, Perez said, but he admitted that so far the results have been relegated to observations and measurements in a controlled laboratory environment.

"The major question is that once you've increased these perceptual abilities and cognitive abilities, do they transfer to everyday tasks," he said, "and how long do they continue to influence the person working on these everyday tasks?"

In the meantime, the researchers are looking at ways to integrate video game technology into learning tools. Mr. Perez said that they are looking at everything from small-screen training on personal digital assistants and laptops to simulators and virtual environments.

One virtual environment, used to develop adaptability within team dynamics, looks very much like a cave.

"You walk into a cave and you're bombarded by this totally different, artificial world where there may be intelligent avatars that you interact with to perform a mission," Mr. Perez said. "These avatars will act as teammates, so you, as an individual, will have to interact with these avatars as a unit."

Mr. Perez said the ultimate goal is to blur the distinction between training and operations.

"I think we're at the beginning of a new science of learning," he said, "that will be the integration of neuroscience with developmental psychology, with cognitive science, and with artificial intelligence."

The Office of Naval Research is sponsoring research in new game theory and solvable games. Those interested in more information on funding opportunities can visit the Human-Machine Adversarial Network topic (#16) in the office's 2010 Multidisciplinary University Research Initiative.

(Courtesy of American Forces Press Service)