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In 1984’s The Last Starfighter, Alex Rogan feels as though his life is going nowhere and spends most of his free time playing an arcade game called Starfighter. That game pits the player against an invading alien force known as the Ko-Dan Armada and, while Alex struggles to succeed in other areas of his life, he’s pretty darn good at Starfighter. In fact, he’s the best.
When Alex becomes the highest-scoring player of all time, he’s approached by an alien in disguise who reveals the game’s true purpose. It served as a training program intended to identify an individual with the necessary skill to hold off a real-life invasion. While certainly a classic, the movie asks us to suspend our disbelief and accept the existence of several intelligent alien species and their need for a human pilot capable of saving them from destruction. While the premise might strain credulity, their tactics make a certain amount of sense.
Timothy Jordan and Mukesh Dhamala, both from the Department of Physics and Astronomy at Georgia State University recently carried out a study investigating the impact of playing video games on the brain’s ability to make sensorimotor decisions. While video games are often the target of ridicule and accused of rotting our brains, researchers found that regular gamers performed better on decision making tasks than their non-gaming peers. The results of their study were published in the journal Neuroimage: Reports.
The study involved 47 college-age participants, 28 of which were regular gamers while the remaining 19 were not. Participants laid down in an fMRI machine which measured blood flow through different areas of the brain while they completed a task.
Inside the machine, participants looked at a mirror which revealed a cue in the form of colorful light, followed by a series of dots. They were asked to push a button in either their left or right hand, depending on which direction the dots were moving. If the dots were static, they goal was to press nothing.
While the task seems simple, the cognitive path involves multiple subprocesses in the brain, starting with recognizing sensory information in the form of the cue and the dots, accumulating enough information to build a mental picture, and finally mapping that information, making a choice, and acting. Those participants who regularly played video games had increased activity in certain regions of the brain resulting in faster and more accurate responses when compared with non-gamers.
Gamers had decreased decision response time on the order of approximately 190 milliseconds and were between 2.24% and 6.87% more accurate. Scientists suspect that the fast-paced nature of video games might prime the brain, enhancing subprocesses for sensation, perception, and mapping to action, all of which refine decision-making skills.
The news is certainly a win for the pro-video game camp but it’s also a win for science. The researchers indicated that the study not only helps to explain what’s going on in the brain during video game playtime and the subsequent refinement of subprocesses, but it could also inspire new methods of cognitive training. Of course, getting to that point will require an even clearer understanding of what’s going on in the brain.
It’s nice to know that we can rest easy when we just want to relax on the couch and fight some aliens. Even if playing video games might be a bad decision, the evidence suggests the next decision will be better because of them. You might even save the universe.