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Can Spatial Cognition Be Trained with Video Games? (VG Series Part 3/10)

2010 September 16

Neo-Academic coverage of the Journal of General Psychology special issue on the psychology of video games:

ResearchBlogging.orgThere are few topics so hotly debated on the Internet as the value of video games. Are they the next generation’s artistic advance, as film was for the last, or are they a blight that makes children overly aggressive and dangerous? In this 10-part series, I’m reviewing a recent special issue of the Journal of General Psychology on video games. For more background information, see the first post in the series.

In contrast to the previous piece in this issue, Spice and Feng (2010)[1] analyze the potential of video games to improve visuospatial cognition – the use of visual information to inform our understanding and interaction with 3D environments.  For example, if you were to get a lot of practice navigating virtual 3D environments (such as World of Warcraft), would that improve your ability to navigate real 3D environments (e.g. hiking through a forest)?

Spice and Feng break down all video games research in this area into three categories: action games, driving games, and mazes/puzzles.  This is not because other kinds of games don’t have potential for positively affecting visuospatial cognition – it’s because no one really studies other types of games in this context (which is a shame).  Of the three types commonly studied, action games are identified as having the most potential in this area.

After discussing a brief history of action-oriented first-person shooter games (back to 1971’s Computer Space, which was released a year before Pong), the authors discuss the methodological and statistics concerns common in this domain.  We’re generally more interested in the effect of video game playing for years on general skill levels than the effect of a 1-hour training program on a post-test measure.

This reflects the major problem that I face in my own research on training.  We’re interested in long-term effects, but the laboratory environments makes long-term effects difficult to capture.  We’re interested in rigorous experimental design, but field studies are notoriously difficult to control.  So what’s the best option?

It’s actually pretty straightforward – we can’t make reasonable conclusion from either type alone.  Both perspectives (quasi-experimental/long-term observational studies and randomized control studies) are needed to inform conclusions in this (and many) domains.

Back to the article: since the initial observational and experimental studies on the general effects of video games, the focus has shifted somewhat to more specific processes in an effort to test spatial cognition theory.  This focus is, in the words of the article, “how video games modify the fundamental sensory and perceptual processes that support spatial cognition.”

Since that’s the most interesting part of this article, I provide here a summary of the major studies discussed.  They also provide a fair amount of theoretical support for each of these areas, but I am most interested in the empirical studies discussed.  If you’re interested in this domain, and especially if you’re interested in the theoretical rationale for these, I strongly suggest you check out the original article.

  • Sensory Processes: Contrast sensitivity (your ability to distinguish distinctions between similar colors/shapes/etc)  improves after training with an action game.
  • Attentional Processes: Playing first-person shooters can expand the attentional visual field, which is the ability to incorporate information from across your entire visual field (where you are look, plus the periphery) when making decisions.  For example, with a larger attentional visual field, you are more likely to see that car driving erratically down the cross-street and change your driving to account for it.
  • Visuomotor Coordination/Speed: Yes, first-person shooters improve hand-eye coordination.  Surprise!

Some first-person shooters require the management of many pieces of information: strategic planning, threat assessment, prioritization of targets. The authors also thus discussed memory as a potentially benefit to playing video games, but no studies were located examining it.

Overall, the authors offer many reasonable visuospatial cognition processes that could be improved as a result of playing video games, and discuss the research evidence for each.  Although there were not nearly as many studies as I would like to have seen (many areas were as low as 1 or 2), there is definitely precedent to consider video games to have beneficial effects in this domain.

That opens the door to some more practical outcomes: the potential of video games to improve psychomotor skills relevant to work.

  1. Spence, I., & Feng, J. (2010). Video games and spatial cognition. Review of General Psychology, 14 (2), 92-104 DOI: 10.1037/a0019491 []
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