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Are action video gamers better decision makers?

Study shows first-person shooter players excel at probabilistic inference--that is, making fast, accurate decisions based on evidence extracted from their surroundings.

Elizabeth Armstrong Moore
Elizabeth Armstrong Moore is based in Portland, Oregon, and has written for Wired, The Christian Science Monitor, and public radio. Her semi-obscure hobbies include climbing, billiards, board games that take up a lot of space, and piano.
Elizabeth Armstrong Moore
2 min read
But Mom, playing Call of Duty helps us improve our probabilistic inference skills! OakleyOriginals/Flickr

We've already reported on findings that playing action video games may improve vision, and some studies indicate that video gamers even make better surgeons.

Now, researchers at the University of Rochester have found that first-person shooter players excel at probabilistic inference--that is, making fast, accurate decisions based on evidence extracted from their surroundings.

What's more, even those who don't normally play action video games improved their inference skills after being forced to play just 50 hours over those who don't play at all.

So are action video gamers better decision makers? The short answer appears to be yes, according to the researchers who report their findings this week in Current Biology, but with an asterisk: those who don't consider themselves action gamers appear just as able to hone these skills if they, well, start gaming.

Researchers compared the skills of action gamers versus non-gamers by presenting both groups with simple decision-making experiments, where people appeared in the form of an array of dots and the volunteers had to discern the person's main direction of movement. They made this task easier and harder by adding to or taking away the number of dots moving in one direction.

Gamers were able to identify direction both faster and more accurately than non-gamers, according to Daphne Bavelier, professor of brain and cognitive sciences at Rochester. However, she adds that the gamers had to have experience with "shooter games, where you go through a maze and you don't know when a villain will appear. It's not exactly what you'd think of as mind enhancing."

(According to their findings, strategy and role-playing games don't have the same effect.)

Bavelier adds that an interesting finding in the improved probabilistic inference skills among action gamers is that it transfers to so many other tasks, as opposed to most kinds of training that help develop skills specific to what is being taught.

"Unlike standard learning paradigms, which have a highly specific solution, there is no such specific solution in action video games because situations are rarely, if ever, repeated," the researchers write. "Thus, the only characteristics that can be learned are how to rapidly and accurately learn the statistics on the fly and how to accumulate this evidence more efficiently."

The researchers have yet to study actual brain function at a cellular level during this decision-making; they have simply measured the resulting performance. Even so, they write, "This mechanism may serve as a signature of training regimens that are likely to produce transfer of learning."

Of course, there is also evidence that these better decision makers may also be more aggressive. Guess we can follow their careers into the military, or politics, or both. I can see the vetting process already: "Approximately how many hours of Call of Duty Black Ops did you clock in back in the fall of 2010? Only 200? Get back to your station."