It remains unclear how exactly the brain changes in response to video games, and also how these cognitive changes impact the lives of players in the real world. Day-to-day life in the West does not generally involve gunfights with enemies attacking from all sides.
‘Video games demand more than real life,’ says Green. ‘Even when you’re driving, there’s a pretty constrained set of places where things can come from – things pop out from the left and right.’
And some researchers say they are dubious about the current applications of video game training, notably the so-called brain fitness systems, which are sometimes marketed as a way to stave off mental decline.
‘There really hasn’t been much good evidence to show that any of this training transfers to the real world,’ says Walter Boot, a psychologist who has researched games at Florida State University.
First person games especially can help train certain visual skills
Still, other uses for game training are being investigated, for example in the treatment of amblyopia, or lazy eye. One study found that sufferers who played 40 hours of games, both action and non-action varieties, experienced a 30 per cent increase in visual acuity. It has also been suggested that games could be used to train surgeons who perform laparoscopic surgery, a finicky procedure in which operations are performed through small incisions in the skin.
In the U.S. Navy, meanwhile, researchers have tested whether a 40-minute video game-training exercise can boost sailors’ damage control skills, which they would need during a missile attack or fire. After playing, sailors were asked to complete a drill on a mock-up of a destroyer, and were found to perform much better than non-players on measures such as problem-solving abilities and situational awareness. The short length of time required for training was striking, Perez says. ‘That’s what is so surprising. We didn’t let them play for three to four hours.’
On the other hand, shooters are also shown to make people seem more aggresive
Ultimately, Perez says, his goal is to build on results like these to develop more efficient ways of training military recruits.
‘It takes 10 to 12 years to develop expertise in a particular area,’ he says. ‘We’re trying to set up situations within a gaming context where we can compress that time.’
For now, it is perhaps premature to institute video game training in kindergartens and schools. Whatever their beneficial impact, violent games have also been linked in numerous studies to aggressive emotions and behaviours, for example to increased hostile attribution bias – the tendency to perceive aggressive intent in others. It all makes for a complicated picture of the effects of gaming.
‘I try to stay away from a dichotomous, good-bad distinction,’ says Douglas Gentile, who researches the effects of media at Iowa State University. ‘The very same game could have both positive and negative effects at the same time.’