Childhood in the digital age
Childhood in the digital age

This free course is available to start right now. Review the full course description and key learning outcomes and create an account and enrol if you want a free statement of participation.

Free course

Childhood in the digital age

3.2.1 Your brain and video games

Brain scientist Daphne Bavelier wants to know how fast-paced video games affect the brain. She has some surprising news about how video games, even action-packed shooter games, influence our learning and focus.

As you watch the video, think about the key points that Bavelier raises with regard to the impact of video games on children’s development.

Download this video clip.
Skip transcript


Daphne Bavelier
I'm a brain scientist, and as a brain scientist, I'm actually interested in how the brain learns. I'm especially interested in the possibility of making our brains smarter, better and faster. It is in this context that I'm going to tell you about video games. When we say video game, most of you think about children. It's true, 90 per cent of children do play video games, but let's be frank, when the kids are in bed, who is in front of the Play Station? Most of you. The average age of a gamer is 33 years old, not eight years old. In fact, if we look at the projected demographics of video game play, the video game players of tomorrow are older adults.
So video games are pervasive throughout our society. It is clearly here to stay. It has an amazing impact on our everyday life. Consider these statistics released by Activision. After one month of release of the game Call of Duty - Black Ops it had been played for 68,000 years, worldwide. Would any of you complain if this was the case about doing linear algebra? So what we are asking in the lab is how can we leverage that power? I want to step back a bit. I know most of you have had the experience of coming back home and finding your kids playing this kind of games. The name of the game is to get after your enemies, zombies, bad guys, before they get to you, right?
And I'm almost sure most of you have thought, Oh, come on, can't you do something more intelligent than shooting at zombies? I'd like you to put this kind of knee-jerk reaction in the context of what you would have thought if you had found your girl playing Sudoku, or your boy reading Shakespeare. Most parents would find that great. Well, I'm not going to tell you that playing video games days in and days out is actually good for your health. It's not, and binging is never good. But I'm going to argue that in reasonable doses, actually the very game I showed you at the beginning, those action-packed shooter games, have quite powerful effects and quite positive effects on many different aspects of our behaviour.
There's not one week that goes without some major headlines in the media about whether video games are good or bad for you, right? You're all bombarded with that. I'd like to put this kind of Friday night bar discussion aside and get you to actually step into the lab. What we do in the lab is actually measure directly, in a quantitative fashion, what is the impact of video games on the brain. I'm going to take a few examples from our work. One first saying that I'm sure you all have heard, is the fact that too much screen time makes your eyesight worse. That's a statement about vision. There may be vision scientists among you who actually know how to test that statement.
We can step into the lab and measure how good your vision is. Well, guess what? People that don't play a lot of action games, that don't actually spend a lot of time in front of screens have normal, or what we call 'corrected to normal', vision. That's ok. The issue is what happens with these guys that actually indulge into playing video games, like five hours per week, ten hours a week, fifteen hours a week. By that statement, their vision should be really bad, right? Guess what, their vision is really, really good. It's better than those that don't play. It's better in two different ways. The first way is that they are able to resolve small detail in the context of clutter.
That means being able to read the fine print on prescriptions rather than using magnifying glasses you can actually do it with just your eye sight. The other way that they are better is actually being able to resolve different levels of grey. Imagine you are driving in the fog. That makes the difference between seeing the car in front of you and avoiding an accident, or getting into an accident. So we're actually leveraging that work to develop games for patients with low vision, and to have an impact on retraining their brain to see better. Clearly, when it comes to action video games, screen time doesn't make your eyesight worse.
Another saying that I'm sure you have all heard around is video games lead to attention problems and greater distractibility. We know how to measure attention, in the lab. I'm actually going to give you an example of how we do so. I'm going to ask you to participate, so you're going to have to play the game with me. I'm going to show you coloured words, and I want you to shout out the colour of the ink, so, this is the first example...
Daphne Bavelier/Audience:
Orange. Good.Green, red, yellow, red, yellow, green.
Daphne Bavelier:
You get my point, right?
You're getting better, but it's hard. Why is it hard? Because I introduced a conflict between the word itself and its colour. How good your attention is determines actually how fast you resolve that conflict, so the young guys here, at the top of their game, probably did a little better than some of us who are older. We can show that when you do this sort of task with people that play a lot of action games, they actually resolve the conflict faster. So clearly, playing those action games doesn't lead to attention problems. Actually those action video game players have many other advantages, in terms of attention.
And one aspect of attention which is also improved for the better is our ability to track objects around in the world. This is something we use all the time. When you're driving, you're tracking, keeping track of the cars around you, and you're also keeping track of the pedestrian, the running dog, and that's how you can actually be safe driving, right? In the lab, we get people to come to the lab, sit in front of a computer screen, and we give them little tasks that I'm going to get you to do again. You're going to see yellow happy faces, and a few sad blue faces. These are children in a school yard in Geneva during a recess during winter.
Most kids are happy, it's actually recess, but a few kids are sad and blue because they've forgotten their coat. Everybody begins to move around, and your task is to keep track of who had a coat at the beginning, and who didn't. I'm going to show you an example where there is only one sad kid. It's easy because you can actually track it with your eyes, you can track, and track, and when it stops and forms a question mark and I will ask you, did this kid have a coat or not? Was it yellow initially or blue? I hear yellow, good. Most of you have a brain. I'm now going to ask you to do the task, but now with a little more challenging task.
There are going to be three of them that are blue. Don't move your eyes; please don't move your eyes. Keep your eyes fixated and expand, pool your attention. That's the only way you can actually do it. If you move your eyes, you're doomed. Yellow or blue?
Daphne Bavelier
Good. So your typical, normal young adult can have a span of about three or four objects of attention. That's what we just did. Your action video game player has a span of about 6 to 7 objects of attention which is what’s shown in this video here, that's for you guys, action video game player, a bit more challenging right? Yellow or blue?
Daphne Bavelier
Blue. We have some people who are serious out there. Yeah, good! In the same way that we actually see the effects of video games on people's behaviour, we can use brain imaging and look at the impact of video games on the brain. We do find many changes, but the main changes are actually to the brain networks that control attention. So one part is a parietal cortex which is very well known to control the orientation of attention. The other one is the frontal lobe which controls how we sustain attention, and another one is the anterior cingulate which controls how we locate and regulate attention and resolve conflict.
When we do brain imaging, we find that all three of these networks are actually much more efficient in people that play action games. This actually leads me to rather counter-intuitive finding in the literature about technology and the brain. You all know about multi-tasking, and you've all been faulty of multi-tasking, when you're driving and you pick up your cell phone. Bad idea. Very bad idea. Why? Because as your attention shifts to the cell phone, you are actually losing the capacity to react swiftly to the car braking in front of you and so you are much more likely to get engaged into a car accident. We can measure that kind of skills in the lab.
We obviously don't ask people to drive around and see how many car accidents they will have, that would be a little costly proposition. But we design task on the computer where we can measure to the millisecond of accuracy how good they are at switching from one task to another. When we do that we actually find that people that play a lot of action games are really, really good, they switch very fast, very swiftly, they pay a very small cost. I'd like you to remember that result and put it in the context of another group of technology users. A group which is much revered by society which are people that are engaged in multimedia tasking. What is multimedia tasking?
It's a fact that most of us, most of our children, are engaged into listening to music at the same time as doing a search on the web and chatting on Facebook with their friends. That's a multimedia tasker. There was a first study done by colleagues at Stanford, and they were replicated, that showed that those people that identify as being high multimedia taskers are absolutely abysmal at multitasking. When we measured them in the labs, they were really bad. This kind of result really makes two main points. The first one is that not all media are created equal. You can't compare the effect of multimedia tasking and the effect of playing action games. They have totally different effects on different aspects of cognition, perception and attention.
Even within video games, I'm telling you, right now, about these action packed video games. Different video games have a different effect on your brain. So we actually need to step back into the lab and really measure what is the effect of each video game. The other lesson is that general wisdom carries no weight. I showed that to you, already, like we looked at the fact that despite a lot of screen time, thpse action gamers have a lot of very good vision, etcetera. Here, what is very striking, is that these undergraduates that actually report engaging a lot of high multimedia tasking are convinced they aced the test. So you show them their data, you show them they're bad and they're like, ‘not possible’.
They have this sort of gut feeling that really they are doing really, really good. That's another argument for why we need to step into the lab and really measure the impact of technology on the brain. In a sense, when we think about the effect of video games on the brain, it's very similar to the effect of wine on the health. There are some very poor uses of wine and there are some very poor uses of video games, but when consumed in reasonable doses, and at the right age, wine can be very good for health. There are actually specific molecules that have been identified in red wine as leading to greater life expectancy.
In the same way, those action video games have a number of ingredients that are actually really powerful for brain plasticity, learning, attention, vision, etcetera, and so we need and are working on, what are those active ingredients so that we can leverage them to deliver better games either for education, or for rehabilitation of patients. Now, because we're interested in having an impact for education or rehabilitation of patients, we are actually not that interested in how those of you that choose to play video games for many hours perform. I'm much more interested in taking any of you, and showing that by forcing you to play an action game, I can actually change your vision for the better.
Whether you want to play that action game, or not, that's point for rehabilitation or education. Most kids don't go to school saying, 'great, two hours of math'. That's really the crux of the research, and to do that, we need to go one more step. One more step is to do training studies. Let me illustrate that step with a task which is called mental rotation. Mental rotation is a task where I'm going to ask you, and again I’m going to ask you to do the task, to look at this shape, study it, it's a target shape, and I'm going to present you four different shapes. One of these four different shapes is actually a rotated version of this shape. I want you to tell me which one.
The first one, second one, third one or fourth one? I'll help you. Fourth one. One more. Get those brains working. C'mon! That's our target shape.
Third, good! This is hard, right? The reason I asked you to do that is because you can really feel your brain cringing, right? It doesn't really feel like playing mindless action video games. Well, what we do in these training studies is, people come to the lab, they do tasks like this one. We then force them to play 10 hours of action games. They don't play 10 hours of action games in a row, they do distributed practice, so little shots of forty minutes on several days, over a period of two weeks. Then once they are done with their training, they come back a few days later, and they are tested, again, on a similar type of mental rotation task.
This is work from a colleague in Toronto where they showed us that initially, subjects performed where they were expected to perform, given their age. After two weeks of training on action video games, they actually performed better, and the improvement is still there five months after having done the training. That's really, really important. Why? Because I told you, we want to use these games for education or for rehabilitation, so we need to have affects that are going to be long-lasting.
At this point, a number of you are probably wondering, why are you waiting for putting on the market a game that would be good for the attention of my grandmother, and that she would actually enjoy, or a game that would be great to rehabilitate the vision of my grandson who has Amblyopia, for example? Well, we're working on it, but here is a challenge. There are brain scientists like me, who are beginning to understand what are the good ingredients in games to promote positive effects. That's what I'm going to call the broccoli side of the equation. There is an entertainment software industry which is extremely deft at coming up with appealing products that you can't resist. That's the chocolate side of the equation.
The issue is we need to put the two together, and it's a little bit like with food. Who really wants to eat chocolate covered broccoli? None of you! You've probably have had that feeling, right, picking up an education game and sort of feeling hmmm, it's not really fun, it's not really engaging. So what we need is really a new brand of chocolate – a brand of chocolate that is irresistible, that you really want to play, but that has all the ingredients, the good ingredients, that are extracted from the broccoli that you can't recognise that are still working on your brains. And we're working on it, but it takes to come and to get together brain scientists, people that work in the entertainment software industry and publishers.
So these are not people that usually meet every day, but it's actually doable, and we are on the right track. I'd like to leave you with that thought, and thank you for your attention.
End transcript
Copy this transcript to the clipboard
Print this transcript
Interactive feature not available in single page view (see it in standard view).

The next section summarises other views on this topic.


Take your learning further

Making the decision to study can be a big step, which is why you'll want a trusted University. The Open University has over 40 years’ experience delivering flexible learning and 170,000 students are studying with us right now. Take a look at all Open University courses.

If you are new to university level study, find out more about the types of qualifications we offer, including our entry level Access courses and Certificates.

Not ready for University study then browse over 900 free courses on OpenLearn and sign up to our newsletter to hear about new free courses as they are released.

Every year, thousands of students decide to study with The Open University. With over 120 qualifications, we’ve got the right course for you.

Request an Open University prospectus