How Gaming Can Remind Us What Our Brains Are Capable Of

I conducted a not-very-scientific experiment on myself to test hypotheses on how games affect attention span.

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Jun 11 2015, 9:30am

Image: Surian Soosay/Flickr

"Long-term focus erodes with increased digital consumption, social media usage, and tech savviness…." A study released by Microsoft last month spelled doom for the average tech user's brain, with news headlines alighting on how we now have "an attention span less than that of a goldfish".

Drawing on a survey of over 2,000 Canadians, Microsoft warned of the rise of "addictive technology behaviours" such as reaching for your phone when bored or right before you go to sleep, or watching episodes of TV shows back-to-back. Researchers reported a decline in the average attention span from 12 seconds in 2000 to eight seconds in 2013 (a goldfish has nine, as reported by a site called Statistic Brain cited in the report, though they did not detail how many tech-savvy goldfish were surveyed).

Reader, are you still paying attention? To have glazed over by now would be excusable, because we've heard all this before. It's the latest in our long, repetitious cultural history of tech scares: This same study comes along every few years, our attention spans forever in peril thanks to an increased use of social media, the internet, or simply too much "screen time."

And the greatest infamy of all is reserved for video games. They are worse than TV, making children inattentive and antisocial and violent and obese. Games, it is warned, rewire society in ways which could be "almost as important as climate change".

Image: F. A. Alba/Shutterstock

"I think there's a long history of people being afraid of how technology will affect our brain and behavior," said C. Shawn Green, an assistant professor of psychology at the University of Wisconsin, who I speak to over email. But his area of study focuses on games for cognitive benefit—could it be that the games our mothers (and the Daily Mail) warned us against have been good for us all along? Green thinks so: "It's basically true by definition that games have been improving brain function. How else would you get better at the games?"

Though it rarely gets as many headlines, there is a school of scientific thought which weighs in favour of gaming, and technology in general, as beneficial to cognitive ability. Games have been shown to increase mental processing speeds and to improve the cognitive abilities of the elderly. Gaming skills have been found correlational to surgeons' skill at small-scale operations. Green's name surfaces again and again in papers on "action game video game training for cognitive enhancement" and "learning, attentional control and action video games".

"There are numerous well-documented benefits of playing action video games," Green explained, "that span the gamut of human cognition—from very low-level vision, e.g. your ability to detect minute changes in the level of grey of an object, to selective attention, e.g. your ability to pick a target out amongst distractors, to high-level executive processes like the ability to multi-task or switch fluently between tasks."

It's worth noting that Green is talking about "action" games, rather than games designed specifically for "brain-training," which so frequently fall flat (I have not found one of his papers which so much as mentions Sudoku).

"It's basically true by definition that games have been improving brain function. How else would you get better at the games?"

The big budget shoot-em-ups could actually be the most beneficial. "I think the education/brain games are still in the early stages," said Green. "I don't think we know all the critical ingredients just yet. Right now, many of the brain trainers are just slightly dressed up versions of the psychological tests that we use to assess cognitive function, which I'm not sure is the best tactic—it'd be sort of like trying to improve your football performance by just repeatedly doing all of the drills they do at the NFL combined..."

I asked Green for examples of the games he's talking about, and he listed the Halo, Call of Duty, Medal of Honor and Grand Theft Auto franchises.

He referred me to Ian Spence and Jing Feng's paper on "Video Games and Spatial Cognition", which features a chart for defining beneficial game types. Characteristics present in action games include "abrupt onset events", the need to "discriminate/select significant objects", "multitasking", "tracking multiple objects" and the need to take note of "peripheral events".

Image: from the paper "Video Games and Spatial Cognition" " by Ian Spence and Jing Feng, Review of General Psychology

Essentially it is the tension, speed, and unpredictability—all the things which make playing games fun—that could make games benefit the brain. An exciting game (possibly also one with violence, and guns, and maybe zombies too) could be better for you than one made up of unexciting puzzles and memory tests. Halo might be more intellectually challenging than Tetris.

After a day reading scientific papers I felt compelled to test this hypothesis on myself, armed with an online concentration test from Cambridge Brain Sciences (a site developed by two doctors from the UK's Medical Research Council), a copy 1989 Tetris, and the original Bioshock (I don't have any Halos because I don't have an Xbox: I will settle for zombies and underwater dystopias instead). I decided to play the two games, one puzzle and one shooter, and to measure my attention span after each.

Reader, are you still paying attention? Then we'll begin my very scientific experiment.

First I took the test as a control. It looks almost exactly like Tetris: You're shown a succession of boxes with multicoloured blocks inside arranged in different shapes. Stopwatch ticking in the background, you have to decide whether or not the arrangements match. It takes me a few seconds to work out how the game works, but I score 64 by the end. I am a little dozy and sleep deprived. It's a middling-to-rubbish result.

I should add now that I have procrastinated, made more excuses, and hopped between more tabs while writing this article than any other in personal memory. There is something horrifying about the prospect of facing up to your own decimated attention span, a mind divided between devices, browser tabs, deadlines and snack times, and the odd Twitter notification. There is a part of me which believes the Microsoft study, for all my urge to disprove it. Is my brain really that far gone?

But I'm leading you on a tangent. Focus...

Next up: Tetris. It's a simulator of the old, 1989 Gameboy version credited in the past with boosting brain efficiency and "pharmatronic" (electronic health-giving) effects. This game intimidated me as a child: it was the kind of thing that "math types" were meant to be good at, all nerve-wrecking twitchy music and claustrophobic screen space.

Image: Lauren Luci/Flickr

It takes only seconds for that old fear to return. Blocks creep and consume half the screen. I wonder now how many of us were introduced to gaming through Tetris. Do parents give it to their children as brain training today? I am scared but I am immersed. I don't even think about tab hopping.

I get to a 4090 score, with 35 lines cleared in seven minutes and 118 Tetriminos locked down, before the screen fills up and I'm out. The game says this is "good", but it's a long way from the leader board.

Back to the attention test: I take it again, and score 123. Apparently Tetris really is good for the brain. It's also every bit as addictive as I remember; I could easily play this all day. But there are more pressing matters: Bioshock calls.

It's been a few years since I last played, but I am beating Nitro Splicers with a crowbar within minutes. I realise this game is eight years old and that there are more realistic, attention-span-demanding games out there, but it's what's on my laptop. This time I'm more aware of the elements of gameplay: is the security camera on the wall engaging my peripheral vision? I decide to spare the Little Sister characters, where last time I killed them all—is my decision making up to speed? I keep getting lost in tunnels—is that my spatial awareness failing?

I forget about writing and go off procrastinating again. Then finally I notice an hour has passed, and it's time for the test again.

The results? A so-so 109. A lower score than with Tetris, but still a lot more than with no games at all. I take it again 15 minutes later after going for coffee, and I'm back down to 56.

Perhaps it's less about the score, or even the game genre, as long as your brain is engaged.

Of course this isn't anywhere near clinical testing, it's an internet quiz. But it raises the question—do games leave us more alert? And if so, which games? If I play a round of Tetris every morning, will it make me better at work? Could this justify bringing Bioshock to the office?

One answer is that it's less about the score, or even the game genre, as long as your brain is engaged. Playing either game I still improved on the score I had before them, and in neither case did it even occur to me to check my Twitter or Facebook messages. Both games were designed to be engaging and maintain the attention of even the most restless players.

"There's a big difference between how long we're capable of attending, versus how long we actually do attend in a given context," Green explained. "For instance, if you're stuck listening to a really boring speech and you start having lapses of attention after a minute, it's not that you're incapable of attending for more than a minute. You might have no issue listening to every single word of an hour-long speech by a more skilled orator."

Regardless whether or not they improve the attention span, games have the ability to remind us what we're capable of. Where else do we see our focus rewarded and tracked, with levelling up and new characters and weapons? This is where that most regrettable of terms, gamification, comes in, though I somehow suspect the average office will never be as exciting as Bioshock's underwater world.

Games keep that sense of competition alive, that same part of the brain which obsessed over school tests and gold star stickers from teachers in childhood. We're not losing our ability to focus on the "important things"—we're just too busy taking out the next Nitro Splicer to care.

Jacked In is a series about brains and technology. Follow along here.