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Dumb Action Games Make You Smarter

Fed up with non-gamers telling you that Call of Action or Grand Theft Auto turns you into an idiot? Now you can present them with proof that games like this actually improve your decision making.

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For just about as long as there have been politicians and pundits complaining that videogames cause violence and indecency, there have been academics quietly refuting them. Collaborative play fosters communities, says one. Games can treat ADD, says another.

In today’s issue of Current Biology, however, a new study takes these results a step farther. Cognitive scientists from the University of Rochester set out to see if games improved decision-making. And they weren’t thinking of smart games like Sim City or Civilization. The researchers wanted to see if there was a relationship between improved decision-making and the loudest, brashest, most action-packed—some would say dumbest–games around.

The team’s initial findings were intriguing. Simply by comparing groups of people who regularly who play action games (like Call of Duty or Grant Theft Auto) against groups of people who do not, they saw that the former made decisions more quickly–but with the same degree of accuracy.

But the researchers needed to go farther than that–they wanted to show that playing shoot-‘em-ups actually caused these gains in decision-making prowess, and not simply those who already made better decisions also played action games. Daphne Bavelier, one of the study authors, explains that her group then took young adults who were not fast-paced gamers. These were divided into two groups: a control group playing leisurely games like The Sims 2 or Tetris; and a group playing action games like Counterstrike or Halo. The action gamers were better able to answer questions in a visual test involving a field of moving dots and an audio test involving distinguishing a target sound from a field of noise.

“If the effect is really due to action game play,” Bavelier says, “we expect those individuals trained on action games to show more improvement between pre-training and post-training than the control trained group. This is exactly what we found.” The study design “ensures causality,” she says.

It’s an intriguing study, but it still raises a few questions. Action games may train us to make “better decisions” when it comes to spatial and auditory cues–but decision-making in general is a much broader category than that. For the time being though, this study is another one for the back pocket when anyone complains you play too many shooters–just tell them you’re getting smarter.

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About the author

David Zax is a contributing writer for Fast Company. His writing has appeared in many publications, including Smithsonian, Slate, Wired, and The Wall Street Journal

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