A recent study suggests that action video games improve a key aspect of decision-making: The ability to infer quickly the probability that a given answer is correct on the basis of limited evidence (“probabilistic inference”). Such an ability is used in many basic perceptual and sensory tasks, which would explain the general transfer of training benefits observed for players.
In the study one group played 50 hours of the fast-paced action video games “Call of Duty 2” and “Unreal Tournament,” and the other group played 50 hours of the slow-moving strategy game “The Sims 2.” After training, the action game players gave accurate answers faster than the strategy game players in both visual and auditory tasks. These tasks involved, for instance, determining as fast as possible the overall direction of a group of randomly moving dots or identifying with which ear they heard a tone concealed in white noise.
Comment: In an earlier post I reasoned that to be successful, brain training has to target relevant and specific brain functions. If you practice playing baseball you do not expect to get better at playing basketball. In the same way if you want to improve your verbal skills you should not expect to do so by training your visuospatial skills. This study shows that this may be true only for specific, high-level functions. Indeed, here training probabilistic inference benefited several perceptual and sensory tasks. So, it may be that the more basic the function trained, the more tasks the function will be involved in and thus the more tasks will benefit from the training. Something to keep in mind when choosing which mental activity may be the right one for you.
Who may benefit from the sensory improvement provided by playing action video games? Many people for whom it is important to make quick decisions based on visual or auditory information (if you are a surgeon or in the middle of a battle field). Focusing on vision, Daphne Bavelier, one of the authors of the study, suggested that “interventions that include action videogame play as a component could be used to enhance the visual abilities (and thus the overall quality of life) of many who suffer from low vision.[…] Since excellent vision and visual attention are important skills for many professions (military personnel, taxi drivers, firefighters, and most athletes, to cite a few), it is likely that a large portion of the population could benefit from the enhancements discussed here.”