Psychologists question studies showing gaming benefits

Academics from Florida State, University of Illinois question methodological rigor of studies that point to improved perception and cognition from gaming.

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If there's one thing the recent Supreme Court case over California's game restriction law made clear, it's that psychologists don't agree on the negative impacts of gaming. It turns out they don't agree on the positive impacts either.

Dr. John-117 may not be an impartial source.
Dr. John-117 may not be an impartial source.

A trio of researchers from Florida State University and the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign are criticizing the bulk of studies showing that games improve perception and cognition in players. The group published its concerns this month in a perspective article in the Web-based journal Frontiers in Psychology.

The three academics took interest in the issue because the benefits of training in specific perceptual and cognitive tasks have generally been confined to the tasks being trained at, rather than improving perceptual and cognitive abilities across the board. Because there have been multiple publications and researchers coming to the conclusion that the benefits of gaming in those areas do carry over to broader tasks, the article's authors sought to examine the methodological rigor of the papers in question.

"Although provocative, the conclusion that game training produces unusually broad transfer is weakened by methodological shortcomings common to most (if not all) of the published studies documenting gaming effects," the researchers determined.

One of the most common concerns cited centered on how the researchers found their test subjects. The paper suggests that if scientists told gamers what they were studying for, the subjects may expect to perform better or have a reason to try harder, both of which could create a sort of placebo effect, amplifying the gamers' test scores. Of 21 papers documenting differences in test performance, 19 of them either overtly told the recruited subjects the purpose of the study or did not specify how the test subjects were recruited.

The new paper's authors acknowledge that experienced gamers outperform non-gamers in cognition and perception tests, but they questioned whether the relationship was causal. For example, they suggested that people with a natural talent in those areas may be drawn to games in the first place, which frequently require those traits in players. They also suggested that frequent gaming encourages players to pick up different strategies, such as looking in every nook and cranny of a level for hidden power-ups. Such a strategy change might not actually make players more perceptive so much as it changes their behaviors in ways that boost test performance.

Rather than pick a side on the question of whether games improve cognitive and perceptual abilities, the researchers suggested adopting a handful of methodological changes that would address their concerns in future studies.

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