Is Mr. S more flexible than Sci? Cognitive flexibility and first-person shooter games.

This post comes to you courtesy, actually, of Sci-Dad, who sent an email to Sci saying wasn’t this cool. Sci then showed it to Mr. SiT, and he was very intrigued, and insisted she cover it. Sci kind of wanted to make cake balls. Maybe that will be tomorrow.
bakerella_cake_balls.jpg
OM NOM NOM
Anyway.
ResearchBlogging.org Colzato et al. “DOOM’d to switch: superior cognitive flexibility in players of first person shooter games” Frontiers in Psychology, 2010.
bad company2.jpg
(First, a brief tribute to Mr. SiT’s current favorite FPS “Battlefield: Bad Company 2”. Ever wonder how he passes the lonely hours while Sci is slaving away for your benefit? Now you know.)
Disclaimer: Sci doesn’t play video games. Neither is she a cognitive psychologist. Any errors in this post related to gaming may be firmly blamed on Mr. SiT, who read this thing first, and any errors in cognitive psychology can be firmly placed on Sci’s limited experience.)


First off, Sci’s been hearing quite a bit about the benefits (or negative consequences, you hear both) of gaming. There are worries about aggressiveness, addiction, and decreases in social behaviors, but there is also interest in whether it can improve certain tasks. Sci’s current favorite is the one she heard about using video games to train surgeons for laproscopic surgery. I don’t know whether anyone is actually doing this or not, but it’d be pretty cool to see results. Sci might have to cover a paper on it soon.
But there are other aspects of video games. The idea of using video games to improve some types of surgery is based on results showing increases in hand-eye coordination among video game players. Some studies have also shown increases in reaction time (faster) and better spatial coordination.
What the authors of this study were interested in was cognitive flexibility, which is defined in this case as the ability to switch attention rapidly in complex scenarios, react rapidly, and to switch back and forth between several tasks that you may be performing at once. And for this, they were interested in focusing on a particular kind of game, the FPS.
FPS, or first-person shooter, is a type of video game usually focused on shooting stuff, and exemplified by games like Doom, Halo, and Modern Warfare 2. In general, the player experiences the game as a protagonist, seeing the objects on the screen as their own field of vision:
Doom.jpg
(Behold Doom. You can see the FPS style by the gun that you are “holding” at the bottom of the screen)
halo2.jpg
Behold Halo 2. The landscape graphics on these can get quite cool, though that’s certainly not limited to FPS (see, Warcraft, World of). Sci actually knew a guy in undergrad who wrote a thesis in aesthetics on how video games can constitute and art form, using Halo as one of his primary examples. I thought his main thesis was in many ways rather flawed (games are meant to be experienced, and he never covered whether the experience of game play in itself would be considered part of the aesthetic experience), but there’s no denying that his presentation of the paper was very pretty.
So anyway. The scientists for this study took 17 video game players and 17 non gamers (they very carefully matched for age and IQ, which are two things that can change cognitive flexibility). For the gamers, they focused on people who tended to play FPS games primarily. They then had them run through a task which checked for task-switching and reaction time. The task worked like this;
FPS games1.png
Up there you can see a diagram of the task. The participant could press two keys, one on the left and one on the right. They get two sets of cues, and two sets of targets. No matter what, they have to tell the difference between a rectangle and a square. For the local cues, the small shapes appear at the top of the screen, and then the local object will appear. For global cues, large objects will appear at the bottom of the screen, and then the object will appear. No matter the local or the global cues (which are the same shapes as what you’re supposed to be looking for a thus distracting), you have to decide rectangle or square. How fast you decide and react is your reaction time.
The cognitive flexibility bit is slightly different. You see, you’re confronted with one type of cue FIRST, and only that kind of cue. Once you’re used to it, they switch it up. Then they switch it up again, and again. Cognitive flexibility will look at how well you do when they switch it up and you’re confronted with a different task than the one you were doing previously. As you switch, your reaction time will slow, and that delay is the measure they were looking for (you will also make more errors).
Here’s a graph that sums it up nicely:
FPS games2.png
On the vertical (y) axis is the reaction time in milliseconds. On the X is whether or not the task is repeated (the same task over again) or alternated (switching it up). Lower reaction times are better remember, because they are faster. You can see that gamers (VPGs, the dark circles), and non-gamers (NVPGs, the white circles) didn’t have significant differences when the task was presented repeatedly (though it looks like the gamers may have slightly better reaction times). But when they switched up the tasks, the non-gamers had major slowdowns in reaction times. The gamers slowed down as well, but not as much.
So it appears that gamers have better cognitive flexibility in task-switching, which is something you would expect from the kinds of scenarios they come across while gaming. Interestingly, the gamers, though faster, were also slightly less accurate, though they didn’t really elaborate on that.
So what does this mean? Well, it could mean that gamers may be better suited to certain types of jobs. It could ALSO mean that FPS gaming could improve cognitive flexibility. This could have some implications for things like aging. People who keep up practice with things that improve cognitive flexibility tend to keep more mentally acute as they age, so FPS games may very well help.
This is a pretty small, very straightforward study, but Sci thinks they could have done a little more. For example, do people play FPS because they are really good as task-switching, or are they good at task-switching because they play FPS? Sci would make the non-gamers play some Bad Company for a few months and try them again. Other studies have shown improvements in things like spatial resolution, but haven’t looked at cognitive flexibility. Additionally, what about games that are NOT FPS? Is the first person aspect necessary? Do those have different effects? Probably they do.
But who knows? Maybe FPS games can help cognitive flexibility. With possible benefits for aging, have you considered teaching your grandmother Halo 2?
Colzato, L. (2010). DOOM’d to switch: superior cognitive flexibility in players of first person shooter games Frontiers in Psychology, 1 DOI: 10.3389/fpsyg.2010.00008

8 Responses

  1. FPS players also can often track the movements of more individual objects in a scene than a non-player. Standard is about 4 objects. FPS gamers can track an additional object or two. But then if they stop playing the game for a while, I believe the effect disappears.
    The same is also true for some types of athletes, who have lots of practice tracking >4 players on a court or field. And again, after they stop playing for a while, the effect generally disappears.

  2. “Sci would make the non-gamers play some Bad Company for a few months…”
    Eeek. Of all the newbie-unfriendly games in the world. I’ve been playing a month and I still pretty much just run for 6 seconds and then die horribly.
    I’d be keen to see how all of this works for RTS players: RTS vs FPS. Usually quite a different set of people attracted to the two genres (some overlap, of course, but there would have to be a subset strongly attrracted to one or the other).

  3. “Sci would make the non-gamers play some Bad Company for a few months…”
    Eeek. Of all the newbie-unfriendly games in the world. I’ve been playing a month and I still pretty much just run for 6 seconds and then die horribly.
    I’d be keen to see how all of this works for RTS players: RTS vs FPS. Usually quite a different set of people attracted to the two genres (some overlap, of course, but there would have to be a subset strongly attrracted to one or the other).

  4. A possible explanation for this is the shoot/don’t-shoot dilemma presented in team multiplayer FPS several times a minute, and changed generally on a per-game basis. Picture this: you’re perched in a window sill, sniper rifle drawn, staring at a frequently trafficked pathway that takes at best, a second and a half to cross from safe point to safe point (out of a sniper’s view). After several seconds of tense silence, you see a blue figure running at top speed through your field of vision. You have roughly a second to identify the target as enemy or ally, aim, and fire. Do you shoot? Well, it depends on whether you’re on the red team or blue team this match. IMO, that’s perfectly analogous to the circle/square dilemma. It makes sense that FPS gamers would be better at this particular skill — it’s one that they actually practice.

  5. I should point out that the consequences are quite high for shooting either way. Popping off headshots on a moving target in under half a second will get you a lot of props, but if you happen to get the “One shot, one kill” achievement by killing your team mates, prepare to be on the receiving end of some particularly colorful language. On the other hand, if you don’t shoot, and miss an enemy, the negative consequence is much smaller, but if you repeat the mistake, you’ll generally be yelled at for being a noob and told to go do something else. Running around with a machine gun, for instance, where the dilemma still stands, but is far less binary, and if you react late, there’s still a chance to gun down your opponent before you die.

  6. Eeek. Of all the newbie-unfriendly games in the world. I’ve been playing a month and I still pretty much just run for 6 seconds and then die horribly.

    Try spawning back at your deployment zone if you need more time to get oriented. If you spawn on one of your squad-mates in a firefight, you’re likely to have a short lifespan.

  7. If you spawn on one of your squad-mates in a firefight, you’re likely to have a short lifespan.

    Words to live by. I tell you, Sci, I like him.

  8. If you spawn on one of your squad-mates in a firefight, you’re likely to have a short lifespan.

    Words to live by. I tell you, Sci, I like him.

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