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8. Counter-Strike turns you into a visual processing ninja
My boyfriend always says that Counter-Strike made him a better driver. Being able to read people's intentions from their behavior means being able to guess their next move, even before they know it themselves. How many times have you seen half a sec second of someone's driving to know they're going to do something stupid? With apologies to Jeff Foxworthy, "You might be a gamer if..."
It turns out there's plenty of evidence for this phenomenon: gamers are, in general, better at processing visually complicated information.
In one study participants were asked to identify, as fast as they could, which way a target object was facing (in this case, whether a cartoon fish was facing left or right). This task got progressively harder, as they introduced visual distractor objects (a bunch of fish facing various directions). Not only were the gamers just faster at this task, but they also were better able to "tune out" the distractors and give more accurate responses.
The study I just mentioned also includes this excellent quote, which I choose to mentally read in a Sagan voice: "Previous research suggests that action video game play improves attentional resources, allowing gamers to better allocate their attention across both space and time."
This processing power also extends to the auditory domain. A similar study asked participants to put on a set of headphones and determine which side was playing a tone. Both earphones were also playing white noise in order to mask the tone. Interestingly, both the gamers and non-gamers had about the same accuracy. The gamers were just faster at it, even as the tone got quieter and quieter.
This transfer of learning from one domain (video games) to another (unrelated information processing tasks) is something of a holy grail to education researchers. Academia and education experts are abuzz with ideas about how to turn the power of games into a tool for learning. In fact, I'm doing some contract work right now to design an educational game that integrates scientific literature with rewarding gameplay. I think we've only seen the very beginning of games and learning.
9. Video games and the aging population are going to be BFFs
At least one study has shown that seniors (sometimes adorably referred to as "silver gamers") can actually improve their cognitive function by staying mentally active. Another study observed that seniors found puzzle games on the Nintendo DS more engaging than pen-and-paper activities like crosswords. In fact, seniors take pleasure in logic and problem-solving games that younger generations would find tedious (congratulations on making it this far in an article that's almost all text, by the way).
10. Here's what happens when you scan someone's brain during Super Monkey Ball 2
If you've never played a Super Monkey Ball game, the basic structure is: steer a monkey towards a goal, collect bananas for extra points, and avoid falling off the edge of the level. And according to one recent study, each of those events triggers a different pattern of brainwaves.
An EEG is a device that measures electrical impulses near the surface of the brain (it looks a bit like a shower cap filled with electrodes). Our thought patterns evoke different electrical charges depending on which areas of the brain are active.
And when you stick Super Monkey Ball in there, you get findings like "Picking up bananas evoked decreased theta activation on central electrodes, decreased high alpha activation on frontal electrodes, and increased beta activation on frontal electrodes." Which is a fancy way of saying you're paying attention.
You might expect all of the game components to have this sort of effect, but not so: falling off the edge of the level actually triggered activation in the motor areas of the brain, which may relate to an actual feeling of falling (who hasn't felt such a visceral reaction to losing a game?) And reaching the goal? That put the players' brains into a relaxed state.
I believe we're only at the beginning of the cross-pollination between games and neuroscience. Games are helping us unravel things we didn't know about the brain, from disorders like addiction and amnesia to the processing of pain and visual information. Games are tackling some of the pressing medical issues of our time, including physical rehabilitation and the challenges of an aging population. They're also teaching us about the way we feel rewarded, and even how we define our sense of self. And as far as neuroscience being on the brink of all its great discoveries, if you ask me, I think Max was right.