S.T.E.A.M. Day

Cognitive effects of video games

In recent years, there has been a lot of mainstream media coverage on the role of video games in education. Within this flood of information are many conflicting headlines like this and this. In short, yes, video games can improve attention, but only given: 

  1. Very specific scenarios 
  2. Certain types of games
  3. Certain types of attention skills 
  4. The child and any pre-existing conditions (ADHD, hyperactivity, etc.) 

Below we will unpack studies and dispel misconceptions surrounding cognitive effects of video games. 


Better visual attention skills

The landmark study that brought video games into the limelight was about the effect of third person action games on visual attention and visual-spatial skills. Children who were avid gamers had a better ability to process and filter visual information – which makes sense considering the amount of incoming threats you have to dodge during an action game. Furthermore, researchers found that some children had relatively advanced spatial rotation skills. 


Video games and dyslexia

Another study that is often misrepresented is about how video games improve reading skills in dyslexic children. Researchers found that children who played 9 sessions of action games experienced a year’s worth of developmental improvement. The study concluded that video games train the brain’s ability to switch between visual (seeing the letter) and auditory stimuli (sounding out the letter)- an important process when we read. 


Decreased proactive control

Only third-person games were used in the studies mentioned earlier. With the advent of technology, third person games have been replaced by increasingly realistic first person games. Recent studies on the effect of violent first person shooter games demonstrate that they can decrease attention spans and worse proactive control. 


Proactive control is a form of attention; it is the ability to focus on what’s about to happen to ensure a fast and efficient response. As humans, we adapt, and our brain does the same. Video games stimulate a dopamine rush through rapid-pacing, flashy visuals, and immediate feedback. Eventually our brain adapts and wires itself to process more frequent stimulus- meaning you get distracted more often. Low-volume gamers, on the other hand, displayed higher brain activity at times they needed proactive control. 


Although there is no evidence linking gaming to academic performance, the American Academy of Paediatrics recommends no more than one hour of screen time per day for children and two hours for young adults.