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Game Research, and What it Means to You

July 24, 2012 Article Start Page 1 of 3 Next

[In this feature written by two researchers from the Gains Through Gaming Lab in the Department of Psychology and North Carolina State University, you'll find "a selective, non-exhaustive review" research on "benefits afforded to cognition by video game playing", as well as practical thoughts on how you can research "the potential benefits of playing your video games."]

Little Timmy age 12 tells his parents he wants a video game that all his friends are playing. So Dad takes him down to the store and finds that the game is rated Teen. Hmm...

Dad is not sure so he reads the back of the game and finds that the ESRB provides content descriptors to go along with the rating. The descriptors for this game include "Blood and Gore, Crude Humor, Mild Language, Suggestive Themes, Use of Alcohol, Violence." That is a long list of pretty negative words, not to mention that the title has the word "war" in it, so Dad decided against buying the game for Timmy. Sorry Timmy.

Perhaps this outcome could have been different. What if that same ESRB label also included all the positive benefits of playing that particular video game or games just like it? For instance, what if the following were added to the label: "Research has shown that playing this game is linked to: improved reading comprehension; leadership skill development; increased social interaction; improved cognitive functioning."

When making decisions, consumers should know the positives as well as the negatives. So why are consumers currently getting just one side of the story? If the positive psychological benefits of playing a particular video game were known they may counterbalance or even outweigh the perceived negative effects conjured up when reading current content descriptors.

It is unlikely the ESRB will change its labeling system, and there are probably legal issues with making strong causal claims, but that does not mean that developers and publishers can't support, conduct, and publicize research that promotes the benefits of playing their video games.

It is the potential psychological benefits attributable to playing video games that are the focus of the following discussion. Specifically, we provide a selective, non-exhaustive review of the research with a particular focus on the benefits afforded to cognition by video game playing. After which, some advice for developers and publishers interested in having research done on their games will be provided.

Early Video Game Research

In the late 1980s and early 1990s, as video games became more ubiquitous, the graphics more realistic, and the plots more engaging, psychologists began research to determine if there were negative implications to playing video games such as increased aggression. The relative merits of this research, still a hot area of inquiry, are open for some debate (i.e., since 1996 violent crime rates in the U.S. have declined while the sales of video games has increased). This is not to say that young children should play excessively violent video games; indeed, they probably should also avoid violent movies or TV.

Given all the research on the potential negative effects, in the late '90s a small group of researchers started wondering if video games might have some positive benefits. The results of these early studies by and large confirmed their hypothesis -- playing video games was related to some positive outcomes. The majority of this research has focused on cognitive functioning which makes sense given that many video games require cognitive skills like problem solving, reaction time, memory, spatial ability, and attention to play the game.

A caveat needs to be made before proceeding; this admittedly selective review of the research only focuses on studies examining the impact of commercially available video games. It does not include research on serious games, games designed to "save the world", or "gamification" (perhaps the most overused term in academia, currently).

While the work in these areas is important, and no-doubt beneficial, the resulting games are explicitly developed to produce positive outcomes (e.g., losing weight, learning chemistry). Research showing the benefits of these games is a more a "proof of concept" than anything else. Unfortunately, some of the the developers of these "make life better" games do not scientifically establish the efficacy of their games, but that is a topic for another article. So this article, as well as our own research, is concerned with commercially available video games made for entertainment purposes.

Cognitive Functioning

Most of the research examining the positive benefits of playing video games has focused on cognitive functioning, a broad term used to refer to a whole host of specific mental abilities such as memory, processing speed, working memory, spatial ability, attention, and perceptual skills. Each of these cognitive abilities is measured using specific tests, many of which are similar to or the same as measures of intelligence.

The work by Bravier and Green is widely considered the first set of studies examining the relationship between cognition and video games. In a series of studies they compared the cognitive functioning of undergraduates who were habitual video game players (e.g., played action video games four days per week for at least one hour per day over the last six months) to a group of undergraduates that were non-video game players.

Participants in the habitual video-game group reported playing the following games: Grand Theft Auto III, Half-Life, Counter-Strike, Crazy Taxi, Team Fortress Classic, Spider-Man, Halo, Marvel vs. Capcom, Rainbow Six: Rogue Spear, and Super Mario Kart.

Across the different studies, the authors found that the habitual video game group performed significantly better on tests of visual attention, spatial ability, and visual short-term memory skills compared to the non-video gaming group.

The video game-cognition relationship is even found in participants who you don't think of when the word "video game" is used. In a study of over 150 adults over the age of 65 conducted in our lab we found that almost half our sample played video games at least once a month. Those "gaming grannies" performed significantly better than non-gaming older adults on a wide range of cognitive abilities including memory, reaction time, and spatial ability. In fact, they even performed better on measures designed to assess their real-world memory ability.

By and large the preponderance of the evidence suggests that individuals who play video games perform better on measures of cognitive functioning than individuals who do not play video games. Our work is not alone; other studies have found that older adults who play video games have, on average, better cognitive functioning than those older adults who do not.

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Kenneth Blaney
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Although I get that you are just using the ESRB as a peg on which to hang this story, I felt the need to say this anyway...

The idea of the ESRB is to inform parents about things in the game that the publisher might not otherwise advertise. As a result, ESRB ratings are exclusively negative by definition. The Surgeon General warning on cigarettes doesn't expound on the benefits of smoking (and there are some) because there is already an entity that is responsible for communicating that information... namely, the publisher, the advertiser and the salesmen.

Raymond Ortgiesen
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I think what they're suggesting is that the publishers and advertisers start selling games not just on their graphics engine, story content, etc. like they already do, but start selling people on this very real research as well.

Kenneth Blaney
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Of course, of course. The ESRB is just something to introduce the concept (a journalistic peg).

Steven An
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I would love to see how certain video games affect our ability to think about economics issues. For example, I see a lot of similarities between discussions about game-balance in Starcraft and discussions about the US tax code. Both involve rigid systems imposed on a human population, and the goal is to make something fair that everyone likes. Otherwise, players (citizens) move to another game (country). Sooo..yeah. More games research please :)

Joao Bernardes
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There is actually a pretty large volume of research about in-game economies going back a while and it even seems to be getting applied to actual games (CCP employs economists to model and try to regulate EVE's complex economy, for instance)... It's not quite my area of research, but if I remember right people seem to behave economically in-game in much the same manner that they do in their day-to-day life, even if in-game economies are sometimes simpler (so I'm not sure about how much learning is involved - can't really remember having seen a study about that, though I don't doubt it's out there somewhere). If you are interested in the subject you should probably start by checking out Castronova's work...

Watson Tungjunyatham
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I would definitely love to see some more correlation between economics and gaming.

A direct example I'm imagining would be the economies of online games, namely MMORPGs like World of Warcraft. Any MMORPG with an in-game player-run market transferring items would present itself with quite a few opportunities to money manage, and, best of all, give the chance for said player to strike it big and achieve success... I can't imagine such economies being as elaborate as our own, of course, but I definitely there would be something to look at there.

Kenneth Blaney
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Watson, there is no reason the economy of an MMO would be any less complicated than the economy of the real world. There are actually just a small number of major factors that have an impact on real world economies. The complexity springs up on the interactions of those factors and on the abstraction of those interactions. Incredible complexity is inherent to any system that features free agents (human players), the ability to trade items between those free agents (in game economy) and rules governing how those trades are conducted (market place fees, bind on equip items, multiple currencies) because those free agents are going to look to use those trades to benefit themselves and sometimes harm others.

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Jalane Farrington
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I really enjoyed reading this article because it relates to my research about literary and historic education applied in video games. Many continue to view video games as a source of aggressive behavior from biased opinions, unsupported research, and more that many reject games by violent labels. Although specific games endorse in violence, these video games also offer educational information that can be accurate or altered. This sounds highly unlikely for people to perceive, particular to younger adolescents. However, it can be quite true. When I was in 9th or 10th grade, my teacher once asked my class for the name about a specific war in England that dealt with roses. I raised my hand and answered her question correctly. Then, I explained the whole scenario about the roses and the major characters. Enlightened by my knowledge, my teacher asked how I know about the war of roses. I replied, "I learned it from a video game that I was playing." It was Yu-Gi-Oh: Duel of Roses. Although they edited the characters that resemble an anime cast, the information mentioned in the game related quite closely to the historic facts like Prince Henry being banished, etc. Although this game generally rated for teens, mature games also relay information that adults to underage children may learn. For example, "Shadow Hearts: Covenant" allows players to learn historic events while partaking in a fantasy-violent journey across the world. It mentions information about certain events that involves or relates to World War I and II like specific dates, major characters, and places involved. To be specific, players meet Rasputin, witness the settings before the bombings of Japan, etc. Sometimes, players remember "other" information like:
-the acronyms of political or national organizations of today through Black Ops, Desert Storm, and Ghost Recon
-ammunition and gun titles: MP50, AK-47, etc..
-pronouncing Chinese, Russian and sometimes Japanese names from Dynasty Warriors, Metal Gear Solid, Tekken, Soul Caliber
-meaning of logistical statistics: charismatic, virtue, inteligence to elemental weakness and strength by many MMO (Multiplayer Online) or not like World of War Craft, Dungeons and Dragons, and Dragon Quest
-reading a motion sensor radar or map
Therefore, I believe people can learn educational or noneducational information through video games, regardless of violence, etc.

Jason Allaire
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Thanks for all your comments. Glad folks found our article informative.

Studying economics in games is very interesting, and has been going on since some economist wrote a paper discussing the GDP of EQ a while back. From our perspective it would be cool to see if in-game economic knowledge and skills (e.g., auction house skills) translate to real-world economic skills.

Jalane, I appreciated your comment and it made me think of one of my favorite gaming memes:

Kevin Fredericks
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I researched economics for a few years, and I found very few peer reviewed journal articles on the subject of game economies, but the ones I did find were always fascinating.

Does anyone know an aggregation or citation list for these studies outside of wikipedia?