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Will “Call of Duty” Be Assigned for 10th Grade (Gaming) Homework?

The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Scientific American.


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Two prominent neuroscientists have published a commentary in the Feb. 28th Nature suggesting that video games might be crafted to improve brain function and enhance personal well-being. In “Games To Do You Good,” they cite prospects for bettering performance on behavioral measures ranging from visual perception to altruism.

Daphne Bavelier of the University of Rochester and Richard J. Davidson of the University of Wisconsin put forward a plan calling for neuroscientists and game designers to work together to determine what aspects of play can  improve cognitive performance—and for enabling  game designers from academia to get their products to market, a process they compare to transferring drugs from the lab to patients.

The promise of video games for enhancing a range of cognitive skills was highlighted as well in the January/February issue of Scientific American Mind in an article that points out that games like Call of Duty can improve visual ability, attention, spatial reasoning and decision making. The article mentions the work of Bavelier, an advisor to a game company, and others who are trying to realize the vision of  neural enhancement either through action play or explicitly labeled brain training.

By coincidence, the same issue of Mind references one of the biggest snags in bringing forth gaming as pedagogy.  In the letters section of that issue, three researchers—David Hambrick, Frederick Oswald and Thomas Redick—cite the absence of any convincing evidence for efforts to improve intelligence through mental exercises —the basis for much of  the lucrative brain-game industry. Their letter was a response to an earlier Mind article that showed that an “n-back test,” incorporated into some games, can improve working memory, a measure related to intelligence. (See their letter online under the sub-heading Fixing Intelligence.)

What’s the answer?  I can only waffle here. One of my editors always entreats staffers to try to bring out a clear argument in any story that we write or edit. The brain-video game arena is one reporting area in which I have always utterly failed to meet that objective. The article by Bavelier and Davidson indicates why it is difficult to disentangle studies on games for brain enhancement. In sum, this  type of research is tough to do. “Placebo controls are not possible,” the authors write, “so optimal designs probably involve having several comparison groups, including an active gameplaying comparison [group] and perhaps other, more typical interventions, such as drug therapy.”

To continue this on-the-one-hand/other-hand thread that drives my editor crazy: something along these lines certainly seems possible. One of the underlying themes in brain research in recent decades is the accumulation of evidence for neuroplasticity, the brain’s apparent ability to remold  like clay in response to changing inputs from the outside world: the brain of a blind person expropriating the visual cortex to process sensations of touch.  One long-time pioneer in neuroplasticity research, Michael Merzenich, became involved with developing brain-training software—and researchers in the laboratory of Nina Kraus at  Northwestern University reported in February that using one of the brain training exercises developed by Merzenich’s company, Posit Science, enabled older adults to hear better by letting them process sounds more quickly.

It’s studies like this that may have  prompted the White House Office of Science and Technology and the National Science Foundation to organize a get-together last year of gaming companies and neuroscientists—and the second annual Entertainment Software and Cognitive Neurotherapeutics Society conference is being held from March 15 to 17th at the University of Southern California.

The  biggest challenge in all of these endeavors will be to determine whether a higher score on Call of Duty translates into a larger tally on tests of mental processing time (how fast you jam on the brakes when a kid runs in front of your car to retrieve a ball) or working memory (keeping a new phone number in your head long enough to dial). As the letter writers to Mind imply, not much evidence exists so far that a video war fantasy or a psychological test, slightly re-purposed into the form of a commercial brain game, will get you into Mensa if you didn’t have the essentials from the outset.

Call of Duty may improve memory, attention, reflexes and whatnot for  Sergeant John “Soap” MacTavish, a game character, but that’s wholly separate from whether the actual game player also displays augmented function for those attributes when venturing beyond a desktop virtual world. Daniel T. Willingham, a professor of psychology from the University of Virgina, sums up the main critique of cognitive calisthenics: “What we really want to do is target a cognitive process [say, attention or memory] and then design a game that packages practice of that process into a gaming experience. That effort has been ongoing for 20 years or so in the education world and game designers have found it much more difficult than anyone thought it would be.”

Judging whether anything has actually changed within the neural circuitry of a game player’s prefrontal cortex is an exceedingly difficult task. A player may actually improve when tested on a measure like working memory—in principle, demonstrating that interacting with battlefield graphics translates into an improvement in mental ability. But that may not suffice. Willingham again:

There has been enormous controversy over transfer in working-memory training. At least in some tests, researchers show transfer [from the game to] working memory measures. What they don’t show is beneficial effects of working memory training to cognitive processes that have working memory as a constituent—reasoning, for example. So working memory is highly correlated with reasoning ability and then you boost working memory…but reasoning doesn’t get any better. Why? That’s still under debate…it’s not obvious that if we can boost mental rotation [a skill mentioned by Bavelier and Davidson in their article], we will make people into better dentists or  scientists.

This hurdle will likely leave both psychologists and software developers executives undeterred, if only because of the hypnotic allure of gaming: Call of Duty: Black Ops was played the equivalent of  68,000 years in the month after its release. Michael Posner, a professor of psychology from the University of Oregon, believes that the issue of transfer effects will ultimately be addressable: “We do have principles for predicting transfer based on common elements among tasks, common mental operation in performing them, or common anatomy of the brain networks that support them. Many of the findings are disputed, but I think in the end it will be possible to know the limits of generalization of different forms of learning.”

More (and better designed) research will be needed before that goal is achieved. Walter Boot, who researches complex skill training at Florida State University, says that most of the studies on games arrive freighted with methodological flaws—they include overly simplistic lab tasks, inadequate control groups and a failure to measure whether a game skill translated to the world beyond the confines of a game. “The potential of games to improve cognition is exciting and in the end may be a fruitful approach,” Boot says, “but it will be important for consumers of these games to be given realistic expectations regarding their effect. Much more research is necessary before this can happen.”

For the moment, a video or brain game that enhances neuroplasticity or IQ may not be where a parent or student should look to learn how to learn better. Willingham and colleagues published a lengthy review in Psychological Science in the Public Interest this year that shows that the student that tests herself on recently learned material and goes over coursework at set intervals, rather than cramming, has the best chance of success. Whether or not they make the brain more plastic, these tried-and-true methods, affirmed by a body of psychological research, may be as good as it gets.

Image Source: Activision, Treyarch, Wikimedia Commons (public source)

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

About the Author: Gary Stix, a senior editor, commissions, writes, and edits features, news articles and Web blogs for SCIENTIFIC AMERICAN. His area of coverage is neuroscience. He also has frequently been the issue or section editor for special issues or reports on topics ranging from nanotechnology to obesity. He has worked for more than 20 years at SCIENTIFIC AMERICAN, following three years as a science journalist at IEEE Spectrum, the flagship publication for the Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers. He has an undergraduate degree in journalism from New York University. With his wife, Miriam Lacob, he wrote a general primer on technology called Who Gives a Gigabyte? Follow on Twitter @@gstix1.

The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Scientific American.





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  1. 1. vapur 12:41 pm 03/6/2013

    Pattern recognition, muscle confusion, and learned aversion to depravity.

    I walked over a trench and shot someone in the head; that was the last time I played an FPS. I want to play with people, not murder them and shout obscenities when I lose.

    Music and colors, perhaps? Situational comedy and tragedy could go a long way at actually teaching things other than how to aim and shoot. When will we get a video game about some meek gay kid who gets verbally abused and physically assaulted as he progresses through the story?

    An available mind is a space for rent, pliable to new perspectives that may reinvent the savageness of civility.

    Link to this
  2. 2. WhyWhyNot 1:50 pm 03/6/2013

    “Man, do I love bacon. If only it weren’t so unhealthy…”
    “Have you heard of the Atkins diet? Apparently some scientists think the way to stay healthy is to limit your carbohydrate intake.”
    “Awesome! Better only eat bacon from now on…”
    “Uh… that’s not… don’t you want to see the research?”
    “No, no, no. I trust science bro. Bacon it is.”
    ————————————————-
    “Man, do I love video games. If only they didn’t distract me from studying for this test…”
    “Have you heard that some scientists think video games improve working memory?”
    “So I’ll be able to hold more stuff in my head when working out problems on the test?”
    “Uh… kind of, if you read the resear-”
    “Say no more, if I split my study time between COD and OChem I’m sure to ace the exam!”
    “I never telling you about these types of things again.”
    “But it’s science Bro!”

    Link to this
  3. 3. lump1 5:47 pm 03/6/2013

    What a great way to ruin gaming for kids – make it required at school! “Stop fooling around, you still need to beat that level boss and capture that amulet. You won’t get credit unless you have the amulet!” “But moooom, I don’t care about some stupid amulet!”

    Link to this
  4. 4. dubina 12:36 am 03/12/2013

    Michael Posner, a professor of psychology from the University of Oregon, believes that the issue of transfer effects will ultimately be addressable: “We do have principles for predicting transfer based on common elements among tasks, common mental operation in performing them, or common anatomy of the brain networks that support them. Many of the findings are disputed, but I think in the end it will be possible to know the limits of generalization of different forms of learning.”

    Posner is right. So is Walter Boot.

    “More (and better designed) research will be needed before that goal is achieved. Walter Boot, who researches complex skill training at Florida State University, says that most of the studies on games arrive freighted with methodological flaws—they include overly simple lab tasks, inadequate control groups and a failure to measure whether a game skill translated to the world beyond the confines of a game.”

    “The potential of games to improve cognition is exciting and in the end may be a fruitful approach,” Boot says, “but it will be important for consumers of these games to be given realistic expectations regarding their effect. Much more research is necessary before this can happen.”

    Boot is in the ballpark, but he has missed an important point.

    The problem with contemporary video games is that what they teach is more implicit than explicit. They are like the Dickens-Flynn model of reciprocal causation between minds and environments; by that, I mean they are too abstract to instruct and inform the underlying bases of functional intelligence. This comment for comparison:

    Stephen P. Stich (Beliefs and Subdoxastic States, 1978): “We can speak of information as conscious in the sense that it is inferentially promiscuous, that is, it is easily available to be used as a premise in reasoning and in formulating plans, and it is available for reporting. It is available to many information-processing agents rather than one or only a few.”

    IQ tests are in the same boat: they test skills that are not coherent to the adult experience of cumulative procedural knowledge. Here is a pertinent bit from Mark Fox and Ainsley Mitchum’s paper, “A Knowledge-based Theory of Rising Scores”.

    “Regardless of veracity, the biological hypotheses described above rest on a conceptual metaphor of the Flynn effect as an increase in some psychological quantity that is already possessed in greater or lesser amounts by every person in every population.”

    “Contrary to this interpretation, recent findings suggest the trend is better conceptualized as reflecting a know-how approach to problem solving, a form of knowledge that proliferates only in relatively modern cultures.”

    Hopper: “The plasticity of the brain may be a lifelong phenomenon, but we can probably assume that our potential for mental development is likely reached by the time we are teenagers, when the brain has completed its neurological development.”

    “However, there is more to intelligence than neurological development. There are many studies (such as the one listed in my source) that have shown IQ can be increased through experience and training, and one could imagine this as a lifelong endeavor.”

    The failing of video games (to achieve Posner’s goal and related goals) is that they are chiefly designed for self-indulgent entertainment, not instruments of illumination. DNB and Cogmed training attend to working memory, but they are like contemporary video games, movies and screenplays; they do not foster much meta-cognitive awareness of the organization and pace of complex procedural knowledge. Probably that will change. The benefit of playing esoteric video games like Far Cry 2 and StarCraft II (especially games that generate replay files) is that they will generate more meta-cognitive insight. More of the preconscious elements and relations of cognition will be perceptible, familiar and addressable.

    Link to this
  5. 5. Deandonavan 1:29 am 03/12/2013

    It is just amazing that the video game industry is getting better and better. I love the fact that it is getting so realistic. Until it is perfectly amazing I will get airsoft guns that look like the guns in video games. Look at these http://www.airsplat.com/airsoft-video-games.htm

    Link to this

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