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Which came first, video game addiction or ADD?

A new Iowa State study finds that people who play video games for 40-plus hours a week have a harder time focusing than those who play a few hours a week.

A new study finds that frequent video gamers have a harder time focusing than those who play less often.
Elizabeth Armstrong Moore

A new study out of Iowa State University finds that people who play video games for 40-plus hours a week have a harder time focusing on certain tasks than those who play just a few hours a week. Published in the latest issue of the journal Psychophysiology, the study also supports research published earlier this year that found a positive correlation between video game addiction and Attention Deficit Disorder (ADD).

Researchers collected data from 51 Iowa State undergrads ages 18 to 33, about half of whom reported playing less than a couple hours of video games a week, and about half of whom reported playing an average of 43 hours a week.

Researchers monitored brain activity while participants performed the Stroop Task, a standard measure to determine attention levels. Participants had to identify the color of a word when the color and word matched, and when they did not match. (It typically takes longer to indicate the color when the word does not match.)

They found that the ability to pay attention reactively (i.e. when prompted by a trigger, such as being shot at) is similar across both types of gamers, but brain wave and behavioral measures of proactive attention (i.e. anticipating a mechanism, such as collecting pots of gold) are significantly diminished in the 43-hour-a-week gamers.

But which begets which? Is the propensity to play video games several hours a day the cause, or the effect, of proactive attention issues? The study shows correlation, but more research is required to identify the true culprit, so beware the headlines that turn this research into a "video games are bad for you" headline:

"Right now the data we're reporting in this study is really susceptible to the chicken and egg problem," said Rob West, an associate professor of psychology and director of the Cognitive Psychology Program at Iowa State. "It might be that playing the games is actually producing this effect, but it could also be that individuals who, for whatever reason, like to play 40 hours a week also have this mode of attending to this kind of information in the world."

The local Des Moines news station KCCI-8 reported on the study last night with the amusingly naive headline, "Some Iowans Play 60 Hours of Video Games a Week." (To their credit, the astounded editors did not use an exclamation point.) Kira Bailey, the graduate student who led the study, jokes in her interview that recruiters realized it was tough to recruit high-volume gamers because they were, you know, at home gaming.

But don't let the nail polish of one gamer in the TV footage fool you; all 51 participants were male (although whether they wore nail polish remains undisclosed). Probably because I have a twin brother, I have always been interested in gender differences. Example: I have noticed that when I have played MMORPGs with my husband, I've had more fun creating my character--its species type, facial features, outfit, etc.--than actually playing the game. So I asked West why they didn't study women as well.

These were all males, and one of the primary reasons is that the games we were looking at are all pretty much first-person shooter, and these are typically played by males. Finding enough females to recruit into a study and say anything meaningful about playing this much first-person shooter games would be almost impossible. There are one or two, but how long would it take to get a decent sample?

OK, he's got me there. So if you are a female first-person-shooter player, be it low-level or full-on addict, or if you know one, contact Iowa State; if they've got the sample size, researchers just might investigate whether the female gaming brain has proactive attention issues as well.