Research suggests that on average, boys have an edge over girls in several types of cognitive skills, such as imagining how three-dimensional objects would look from various perspectives, and calculating the trajectory of an object (such as a bullet or a football) toward a moving target. This makes it easier for boys to immerse themselves in the shooting, fighting and sports games that require these skills—and may be another reason that boys are more likely than girls to prefer these genres. (Girls tend to have superior skills in other areas, such as remembering colors and object locations, and working with and recalling words.)
Although superior visual-spatial skills may attract boys to action video games, research also suggests that video game play can substantially improve those skills. Daphne Bavelier, Ph.D., a professor of brain and cognitive sciences at the University of Rochester, chanced upon this while studying brain plasticity, the ability of the brain to adjust and improve its functioning by rewiring its connections.
“We noticed that some of our subjects were very good at some of the things we were testing, and they played a lot of video games,” said Bavelier, who had been looking at ways to improve people’s ability to process complex visual information. She decided to see if certain types of video games helped teach the brain better ways of identifying and analyzing what a person’s eyes see.
Earlier studies had shown that it’s possible to improve the brain’s ability to handle a particular visual task. But that training was very specific; the improved skills did not transfer from one task to another. After having subjects play different types of video games and then testing their brains’ abilities to process visual information, she found that some types of games could improve multiple visual skills simultaneously.
“Not every game has the same effect on the brain,” she says. “In the case of vision, action video games are good. We suspect that they are good because they require you to monitor your visual environment—you can’t know when or where things will happen. It’s a very challenging task. You have to distribute your visual attention.” She’s using these findings to explore whether video games can help the elderly improve their attention and visual processing.
Bavelier adds that these games can also help children with tasks that have little to do with vision. “Video games can help children learn to make decisions, use strategies and anticipate consequences.”
Other real-world studies appear to support this link between playing certain video games and visual-spatial ability. A study of 33 surgeons (including 18 women) found that past experience playing video games for at least three hours a week, and scoring high in video game skills (based on playing three different games) was related to their ability to perform laparoscopic surgery with greater speed and fewer errors. Game skill accounted for almost one-third of the difference in surgical performance, past experience with games accounted for ten percent, and gender of the surgeon only two percent. In other words, while men were more likely to have played games in the past than women, “correction for actual game playtime showed there was no sex difference in skill acquisition.”
A study of college students at the University of Toronto (Feng, Spence & Pratt, 2007) confirmed a significant gender difference in spatial abilities between video game players and non-players, and between male and female students among the latter group. They then recruited six men and 14 women who had not played video games during the previous four years, and assigned half to play a popular 3-D first-person shooter game with lots of action (Medal of Honor: Pacific Assault) and half to play a 3-D puzzle game.
The students’ spatial attention and mental rotation skills were tested at the beginning of the study. They then played their assigned game for ten hours, one or two hours at a time over a four-week period. At the post-test, puzzle game players showed no improvement, but the action game players improved substantially; their spatial attention abilities approached those of experienced game players. What’s more, the women showed greater improvement than the men. Given these results, the researchers suggest that training with appropriate action video games could potentially lead more women into science or engineering careers.