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Research shows playing first-person shooters improves learning abilities, cognitive function

Samit Sarkar (he/him) is Polygon’s deputy managing editor. He has more than 15 years of experience covering video games, movies, television, and technology.

A growing body of research indicates that playing first-person action games, particularly shooters, improves brain function such as cognitive abilities and learning skills — changes that have real-life applications, reports Scientific American Mind.

Brain skills improved by playing first-person shooters include more than hand-eye coordination, a long-held assumption: Studies cited by Scientific American Mind found that gamers who played shooters often fared better in tests of abilities such as spatial reasoning, spatial focus, visual acuity and decision-making.

According to neuroscientist Daphne Bavelier of the University of Rochester and the University of Geneva, video games "retune connectivity across and within different brain areas," which means that playing them confers skills that can be applied outside of the medium. Scientific American Mind called that the "holy grail of education."

The improvements don't require playing shooters for years, either — while gamers initially scored better on tests of spatial reasoning and visual attention, non-gamers who were told to play a first-person shooter regularly for a limited time evinced marked increases in their scores on those tests. Subjects in the studies cited by Scientific American Mind played games like Unreal Tournament 2004 and Halo: Combat Evolved.

In a 2006 study conducted by Bavelier and researcher C. Shawn Green, nine nongamers played Medal of Honor: Allied Assault for one hour per day for 10 days, while eight nongamers played Tetris for the same span. By training with the military shooter for less than two weeks, the nongamers were able to improve their scores on three tests of visual attention — a skill that's vital for activities such as reading and driving.

By training with the military shooter for less than two weeks, the nongamers were able to improve their visual attention

Other research that Scientific American Mind cited include a 2011 study by University of California, Berkeley, research optometrists Roger Li and Dennis Levi. They found that playing Medal of Honor: Pacific Assault for 40 hours helped cure amblyopia (lazy eye) in 10 adults, in addition to improving their spatial attention and depth perception skills. And according to a 2007 study by Douglas A. Gentile of Iowa State University, skill and past experience with video games correlates with a significantly reduced level of errors for laparoscopic surgeons.

Scientific American Mind pointed out a number of studies showing that playing violent games has a small effect in increasing aggression for a short time. According to the magazine, researchers are attempting to develop first-person games that can have similar positive effects on brain function, but without the violence and potential negative effects of shooters.

The full article is available to subscribers of Scientific American Mind, as well as select educational institutions and libraries. An excerpt can be found on the website of the author, Lydia Denworth.

[Thanks, Jeff and Jonathan!]

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