Can video games improve attention and focus?

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My mother always said that TVs, smart phones and video games were turning my brain into mush.  She might be wrong about the video games, but she was probably right about the smart phone and TV, especially when used at the same time.

Researchers at the Universities of Rochester and Wisconsin performed an experiment on the effects of technology use on attention and cognition.  The experiment defines two forms of technology usage that impact cognition.  The first is media multitasking.  Media multitasking is defined as being able to use two or more media technologies at the same time, such as looking at social media while both texting and watching TV.  The second is playing video games. For the sake of the study they used action video games.

Previous studies show that high levels of media multitasking are associated with an inability to ignore distractions, or a lack of focus.  Playing action video games on the other hand is proven to enhance attention.  This study asked the question:  Does heavy gaming, which enhances attention, soften the negative effects of media multitasking?  The short answer is: Yes.

Participants were asked to fill out questionnaires regarding their media use and their video game use.  These questionnaires were used to categorize participants as light, medium or heavy multitaskers, based on number of media tasks performed concurrently.  Video gamers were categorized based on the number of hours per week they played games.

Once the participants were categorized on both scales – multitasking and gaming – they were given four tasks to complete that required various levels of attention.

Interestingly enough, the middle media multitaskers performed better at completing the tasks than the light and heavy media multitaskers. But gamers tested outperformed the non-gamers at all levels. So, for example, non-gamer, light media multitaskers performed worse than gamer, light media multitaskers.  This result led to two general conclusions. 1) Media multitasking negatively affected performance of the experiment tasks.  Medium multi-tasking impacted attention the least, but if pushed into heavy multi-tasking, attention was very negatively impacted.  2) Gaming seemed to offset some of the negative effects of multitasking on attention.

The surprise was that, once multitasking was considered heavy, gaming had little or no positive impact on attention.  

The study appears designed to allow it to be compared to previous studies, which in my opinion makes it more reliable.  Researchers used the same media-usage and gaming questionnaires as previous studies.  This makes the use of previous findings in this research more accurate.  Researchers also used the same attention tasks as previous researchers to measure attentiveness and cognition.  These two points show that these researchers were careful to design their study to be compatible with previous studies of the same subject so the results could be considered a continuation of the previous study.  Unfortunately, there were only 60 participants in the study, and they were all college age. This limits the results applicability to, for example, the aging brain.   It would be interesting to see how these results would hold up with more participants at varied ages.

Nevertheless, this study is important because it suggests that playing video games can be useful for improving attention.  It also acts as a cautionary tale.  It appears that heavy media multitasking contributes to lack of attention and, in extreme cases, video game use does not help offset that negative effect.  Use one electronic medium at a time. Moderation is best – just like my mother told me.

Cardoso-Leite, P., Kludt, R., Vignola, G., Ma, W. J., Green, C. S., & Bavelier, D. (2016). Technology consumption and cognitive control: Contrasting action video game experience with media multitasking. Attention, Perception and Psychophysics, 78(1), 218-241. doi:http://dx.doi.org.ezaccess.libraries.psu.edu/10.3758/s13414-015-0988-0

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