Action video gamers better at making quick decisions

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Action video game enthusiasts are better quick-fire decision-makers, according to researchers.

Gamers presented with both audio and visual tests proved better than non-gamers at a simple choice-making task.

Even non-gamers who played action games for 50 hours as part of the experiment picked up the decision-making skills.

The research, published in Current Biology, adds to the group's prior findings that gamers have more acute attention spans than non-gamers.

Other research has shown that video gameplay improves aspects of vision, including visual memory, and the ability to change between mental tasks quickly.

What has remained unclear is if there is any connection between these disparate findings, explained Shawn Green, lead author of the new work.

"The current paper asks... is video game training really teaching a lot of individual skills, or is there one single mechanistic explanation that underlies all of the effects?," Dr Green told BBC News.

"We argue in the paper that it is the latter: one single mechanistic explanation - an improvement in probabilistic inference - that explains why video game training enhances performance on so many very different tasks."

This "probabilistic inference" is in essence the degree to which assimilating many small pieces of information leads to good decisions.

"Because there is uncertainty in the world, and in our ability as humans to measure and understand the world, the best we can do when making decisions is to compute how each little snippet of evidence we receive changes the probability that the various alternatives available to us are the correct option," Dr Green explained.

To put gamers' and non-gamers' probabilistic inference to the test, the team, led by the University of Rochester's Daphne Bavelier, came up with two experiments - one visual and one auditory.

In the visual test, an array of dots was made to move, on the whole, in one direction or another. Participants were asked to choose which direction they thought the field of dots was moving, with the task made more difficult by varying the degree to which the dots moved in synchrony.

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The auditory test included a series of noises, with participants asked to guess which ear was receiving the target sound among a great deal of noise.

Both tasks require the accumulation of clues, because the answers were not immediately clear.

The team found that avowed gamers were significantly faster at coming up with the right answer than non-gamers.

"We found that in both tasks, video game players made their decisions much faster than non-video game players, but with an equivalent level of accuracy - thus showing that the video game players weren't just 'trigger happy', which would have led to a decrease in accuracy," Dr Green said.

"Fitting the data with a neural model indicated that the video game player results could be explained if they were performing better probabilistic inference - in essence, every little dot or sound was telling them more about the correct answer than the exact same dot or sound was telling the non-video game players."

Jeffrey Goldstein of Utrecht University's Department of Social and Organizational Psychology pointed out the group's long-established experimental approach of allowing non-gamers to practise games for tens of hours, saying that it eliminates the question of correlations and causality.

That is, the results show that gamers have improved skill, rather than those with improved skills tend to be gamers.

"In order to eliminate the problem of correlations, she trains people to see whether they improve," Professor Goldstein told BBC News.

"She can argue pretty convincingly that playing these games is a cause of improved skills, however they're defined."

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Dan Pinchbeck, a games researcher from the University of Portsmouth in the UK, said the results were something "not many gamers would disagree with", saying the fact that the result was limited to action games - rather than, for example, slower-moving role-playing games - might reflect the very skills that action games hone.

However, he said the paper's line of research promised much understanding yet to come.

"It's such early days for this kind of stuff in relation to games," Dr Pinchbeck told BBC News.

"What's really important is that we're seeing hard scientific data get attached to the understanding of games; we're not working just on opinion and unsubstantiated theory - that's critical.

"We need more on the table to paint an accurate picture of what's going on with gamers, but these are tantalising hints of what could be out there."

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