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Action-Packed Video Games As The Ultimate Educational Tool

Updated on August 15, 2016

In the 1990s, a panicked search for the culprits behind the increasing number and variety of violent incidents reported in the popular press across America resulted in Congress issuing waves of new legislation. Even though FBI statistics at the time pointed to a decline in crime over the period, popular sentiment was sufficient to trigger legislative considerations towards any semi-plausible source for the violence. This eventually led to congressional committee hearings on the detrimental effects of video games to the fabric of society and to children’s cognitive well-being.

Fast-forward two decades, and science points to a reality that is materially different. The only aspect that remains constant, as Heraclitus once remarked, is change itself. Recent scientific research suggests that action-packed video games are in fact a versatile tool for the enhancement of a range of cognitive abilities. And, most notably, that the enhancement is general and transferrable to other cognitive tasks—a feat that is not achieved by popular task-specific “brain games”.

Studies following non-gamers as they are introduced to a regular routine of video games demonstrated that, among the genres of games, action-packed video games confer the widest range of benefits and manifest these benefits to a higher degree. While comparing to carefully selected control groups, it was found that the newbie action-gamers substantially increased their reaction times, improved their ability to focus on visual details, and heightened their sensitivity to visual contrast. In addition, they strengthened their ability to multitask, they were able to mentally manipulate objects with more precision, and they sharpened their abilities to make correct decisions under pressure.

In parallel research, differences observed in the areas of the brain that are associated with the aforementioned skills, as evaluated through fMRI studies, mirrored the findings—with considerable differences between gamers and non-gamers.

The abovementioned changes observed in the newbie action-gamers versus the control groups were strikingly significant. The stereotype of the couch-bound, impulsive, lazy and distractible teenage gamer—largely fuelled by popular media opinions in the 1990s—is hence being dispelled through robust scientific studies. But removing stereotypes is the lesser consequence from these recent discoveries. Applying the newly acquired findings to improve cognitive ability—for example, as a clinical tool, as a treatment for ADHD, or for improving reaction times in the elderly—is naturally the next objective. Encouragingly, preliminary experimentation with such applications are already demonstrating promising results.

Coincidentally, utilizing video games for self-improvement is no less of a virtue. One study showed that while performing laparoscopic surgery (a particularly challenging medical procedure for the surgeon when compared to open surgery), practitioners who also played video games for more than three hours per week executed the procedure with 37 percent fewer errors and completed it 27 percent faster. Simply put, they performed considerably better and worked more efficiently—rather than merely operating faster.

It is such transferability that exalts action-packed video games from more simplistic task-specific ones. The transferable benefits that were observed ranged from improved driving in adverse weather conditions all the way to enhanced mathematical problem solving ability. Yet the most celebrated benefit may be the revamped ability to make correct decisions under pressure—a much sought-after skill in highly paid fields such as trading in the financial markets and medical surgery. That action-packed video games can help one advance his or her career is the pivot upon which the old opinions about video games are truly upended.

Speculation around the mechanism that generates these benefits quickly lead researchers to an oft overlooked factor in our current educational system: that learning be fun. Being interesting and entertaining allows the repetitive—and typically tedious—practice required for skill acquisition to be administered while the apprentice remains unaware of the drudgery involved. Furthermore, that very element in itself fuels the desire for even more practice—culminating in a virtuous cycle towards mastery.

Another proposed mechanism is the fundamental structure behind most video games. The gradually increasing levels of difficulty, practising at the edge of one’s comfort zone, and being supplied with regular feedback and rewards, have long been established as optimal ingredients for skill acquisition. These are, in fact, the foundational principles of the well-respected technique commonly referred to as “deliberate practice”.

What about the negative aspects of video games? Firstly, and ironically so, the recent deluge of positive evidence may lead some to play excessively. This should be resisted. The studies demonstrated benefits from as little as an hour a day for three days a week. Therefore, any intention to exceed an hour a day of video games should be circumscribed by an adage from the Temple of Apollo at Delphi: nothing in excess.

Secondly, to work in a clinical environment, modifications are required to adapt the video game to the patient’s needs, for whom off-the-shelf action-packed games may not provide the appropriate level of stimulation. For example, giving the elderly action-packed video games in the aim of improving their reaction times may prove too intense. In essence, pushing them too far outside their comfort zones fails to motivate, fails to be fun, and thus fails to elicit the desired response.

Lastly, the effects of the violence that is intricately entwined in video games have not been eliminated. Concerns around children becoming desensitized to violence or considering its manifestation in fantasy as a model for reality are still valid issues. In children, prosocial games were shown to promote empathy and social cognition, whereas violent games had the opposite effect. In adults, however, violent games actually showed increased sensitivity to moral codes in response to violent expressions in a virtual setting. While contradictory, these are elements that can be controlled: through tight regulation around age appropriateness and the promotion of action-packed video games that curtail the gory details yet diminish not the action and adventure.

As with previous new technologies before video games, the opprobrium of opinion gave way to facts. And, with facts, a more rational approach to utilizing the new medium came to be. Video games are revolutionary in their confluence of positive factors; how they are ultimately applied pedagogically and for the betterment of society is merely the next episode in the constancy of change.

Class in session
Class in session


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Rosser, James C., Paul J. Lynch, Laurie Cuddihy, Douglas A. Gentile, Jonathan Klonsky, and Ronald Merrell. 2007. “The Impact of Video Games on Training Surgeons in the 21st Century.” Archives of surgery 142 (2): 181-186.

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