Call it a nerd crossover, but I've always been curious about how we play games on a mechanistic level. However, even coming from a rational viewpoint video games seem like a fruitful domain of study, since data collection is simple and complete, environmental variables can be easily manipulated, and the task is far richer than typically used in cognitive psychology experiments.

So, have any psychological theories been formed by/applied to in this domain? It seems like eye-tracking and cognitive modeling approaches are both particularly well suited to this domain, but any work in cognitive science on the phenomena involved here would be interesting to see.

The only things I've found are the interesting experimental work on semantic actions in Tetris, and some modeling work done on unreal tournament within the ACT-R community. It should be noted however, that the latter example uses a video game environment as decent simulation of reality and thus models an agent inside the game, whilst the former focuses on the game from the player's point of view. This might be a personal bias, but the latter seems much more fruitful and more in line with the spirit of my question.

  • 2
    'Any work', seems a bit like a broad question. What particular effects are you interested in? – Steven Jeuris Jan 19 '12 at 15:32
  • This is one of the rare cases where I'm more interested in the methodological possibilities than any specific effects per se. I figured the small domain warranted a broad question. – zergylord Jan 19 '12 at 22:13

11 Answers 11

up vote 12 down vote accepted

Video game training has long been shown to influence perceptual-motor skills, but also visual selective attention,(1) although it might well involve a mix of pre attentive and attentive processing. I have no difficulties imagining there are some key studies on fastest adaptation in children as compared to older people, where effects are probably expressed differently depending on culture and/or early exposition to new technologies. However, I've noticed that video game were successfully introduced in rehabilitation service (e.g., Drew & Waters, Video Games: Utilization of a novel strategy to improve perceptual motor skills and cognitive functioning in the noninstitutionalized elderly, Cognitive Rehabilitation 4(2):26, 1986) as well, which means that such positive effects extend beyond childhood

(1) Green and Bavelier also authored a chapter, The Cognitive Neuroscience of Video Games, in Digital Media:Transformations in Human Communication (Messaris and Humphreys, ed., 2006, ISBN 978-0820478401).

The Cognitive Neuroscience of Video Games (C. S. Green, D. Bavelier, 2004) is a good if somewhat dated overview of cognitive research on video game players. They note that ordinary video game users show a number of differentiated and improved mental skills:

Video game play has been shown to dramatically enhance visuo-motor skills. In particular, video game players have been shown to possess decreased reaction times, increased hand-eye coordination and augmented manual dexterity. Video game play has also been shown to improve spatial skills such as mental rotation, spatial visualization and the ability to mentally work in threedimensions. In addition, video game play has been shown to enhance numerous aspects of visual attention including the ability to divide and switch attention, the temporal and spatial resolution of visual attention, and the number of objects that can be attended.

BrainHex: Preliminary Results from a Neurobiological Gamer Typology Survey is a study that mapped personality types to "gamer archetypes":

The model presents seven different archetypes of players: Seeker, Survivor, Daredevil, Mastermind, Conqueror, Socialiser, and Achiever. We explain how each of these player archetypes relates to older player typologies (such as Myers-Briggs), and how each archetype characterizes a specific playing style. We conducted a survey among more than 50,000 players using the BrainHex model as a personality type motivator to gather and compare demographic data to the different BrainHex archetypes. We discuss some results from this survey with a focus on psychometric orientation of respondents, to establish relationships between personality types and BrainHex archetypes.

Their archetypes present an interesting insight into personality types as mapped to certain kinds of gamers.

Playing action video games improves performance in subitizing and multiple object tracking, both of which are abilities involving attending to multiple objects at once. Note that it's a causal relationship; people who don't play action video games show improvements in those two abilities after playing for a while.

More generally, playing action video games is associated with perceptual learning, suggesting that "avid video game players are better able to form templates for, or extract the relevant statistics of, the task at hand".

This is not my research field, but I'm also very interested in this topic. As far as I know there has not been much research done but two articles of interest are:

The whole of the research on this topic has some very, very serious methodological flaws, which mean there is currently surprisingly little evidence that video games or expert gamers are somehow 'special'. In particular, there are serious concerns regarding demand characteristics.

Don't just take my word for it, take a look at the extremely comprehensive and detailed paper by Boot et al. (2011). It's open access, too!

Here's a choice quote:

One possible factor that could lead to the spurious conclusion of gaming benefits on cognition is differential expectations for experts and novices. If gamers are recruited to a study because of their gaming experience, they might expect to perform well because of their expertise, and a belief that you should perform well can influence performance on measures as basic as visual acuity (Langer et al., 2010). Imagine that you are recruited to participate in a study because of your gaming expertise, and the study consists of game like computer tasks. If you know you have been recruited because you are an expert, the demand characteristics of the experimental situation will motivate you to try to perform well. In contrast, a non-gamer selected without any mention of gaming will not experience such demand characteristics, so will be less motivated. Any difference in task performance, then, would be analogous to a placebo effect.

Almost all studies comparing expert and novice gamers either neglect to report how subjects were recruited or make no effort to hide the nature of the study from participants. Many studies recruit experts through advertisements explicitly seeking people with game experience, thereby violating a core principle of experimental design and introducing the potential for differential demand characteristics (Boot et al., 2008;Colzato et al., 2010;[Karle et al., 20104). The problem is amplified because gamers often are familiar with media and blog coverage of the benefits of gaming, so they expect to perform better when they have been recruited for their gaming expertise.

Boot, W. R., Blakely, D. P., & Simons, D. J. (2011). Do action video games improve perception and cognition?. Frontiers in psychology, 2.
Boot, W. R., Kramer, A. F., Simons, D. J., Fabiani, M., and Gratton, G. (2008). The effects of video game playing on attention, memory, and executive control. Acta Psychol. (Amst.) 129, 387–398.
Colzato, L. S., van Leeuwen, P. J. A., van den Wildenberg, W. P. M., and Hommel, B. (2010). DOOM’d to switch: superior cognitive flexibility in players of first person shooter games. Front. Psychol. 1, 1–5.
Karle, J. W., Watter, S., and Shedden, J. M. (2010). Task switching in video game players: benefits of selective attention but not resistance to proactive interference. Acta Psychol. (Amst.) 134, 70–78.

I and other colleagues have published a paper on the cognitive impacts of MMORPGs:

Link to full text here

The work also reviews some of the literature regarding the psychology of computer games and a new framework for the understanding of cognition in the digital age.

I hope this helps.


The present paper attempts to empirically study the cognitive impacts of Massive Multiplayer Online Role-Playing Games (MMORPGs) in uncontrolled contexts in light of the Cognitive Mediation Networks Theory, a new model of human intelligence that aims to explain cognition as the result of brain activity combined with the information-processing done by external structures such as tools, social groups and culture. A sample of 1280 students Brazilian high school students answered a form inquiring about socio-demographic information plus the use of computer games, and also was submitted to a short knowledge exam and a mini psychometric test. The findings indicated that, due to their underlying structure and sociocultural nature, MMORPGs are associated to a greater level of insertion into the Digital Age, higher levels of logical-numerical performance, and better scholastic ability. Finally, suggestions are made for future studies on the subject.


  • Campello de Souza, B., De Lima E Silva, L.X. & Roazzi, A. (2010). MMORPGS and cognitive performance: A study with 1280 Brazilian high school students. Computers in Human Behavior, 26, 1564-1573.

Just like brain training research - see this great recent study by Owen et al. 2010 - there is little good evidence to show any causal long term and generalisable effects of playing video games.

However, to answer the original question: I found that video game players had higher speed and reasoning ability in a small sample paper based on my PhD research developing computer-game-like ability tests. (McPherson, J., & Burns, N. R. 2008)

People who like playing games might be good at things required for playing games. Just like people who really like and are good at certain sports might often have the right skills and body type to be good at it.

The research showing training effects often involves short term improvements and tasks very similar to the training tasks - this is important. Short term non-generalisable improvements are not the same as psychological traits.

Owen, A. M., Hampshire, A., Grahn, J. A., Stenton, R., Dajani, S., Burns, A. S., ... & Ballard, C. G. (2010). Putting brain training to the test. Nature, 465(7299), 775-778.
McPherson, J., & Burns, N. R. (2008). Assessing the validity of computer-game-like tests of processing speed and working memory. Behavior research methods, 40(4), 969-981.

A few tasks that come to mind:

  • Space Fortress by The CogWorks Lab, an "action video game that requires constant shifts of attention, memory retrievals, visual tracking, fine motor control, and dynamic decision making...":
    • There was a whole program of research built around this game: see the Google Scholar results and a discussion here(Mane, & Donchin, 1989).
  • Kanfer-Ackerman Air Traffic Control Task:
    • see Google Scholar links
    • A number of researchers have done cognitive modelling using this simplified air traffic control simulator. It's not a commercial video game, but a lot of the ideas around rules and points are the same.

It depends on what you mean by "recent". I assume you know of the following?

Green CS, Bavelier D. (2003) Action video game modifies visual selective attention. Nature. 2003 May 29;423(6939):534-7, free pdf.

To quote the abstract:

As video-game playing has become a ubiquitous activity in today's society, it is worth considering its potential consequences on perceptual and motor skills. It is well known that exposing an organism to an altered visual environment often results in modification of the visual system of the organism. The field of perceptual learning provides many examples of training-induced increases in performance. But perceptual learning, when it occurs, tends to be specific to the trained task; that is, generalization to new tasks is rarely found1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7, 8, 9, 10. Here we show, by contrast, that action-video-game playing is capable of altering a range of visual skills. Four experiments establish changes in different aspects of visual attention in habitual video-game players as compared with non-video-game players. In a fifth experiment, non-players trained on an action video game show marked improvement from their pre-training abilities, thereby establishing the role of playing in this effect.

We're looking for long answers that provide some explanation and context. Don't just give a one-line answer; explain why your answer is right, ideally with citations. Answers that don't include explanations may be removed.

  • 1
    Anna, could you explain a bit about how the study you cited answered the question? It would make your answer much more useful to people finding it in the future. – Chuck Sherrington Jun 17 '12 at 17:57

Nick Yee in Palo Alto is doing a lot of work with second-life and other virtual worlds looking at mostly social psychological questions. He seems to be making use of the full range of data available in the virtual world as you suggest above.

Google Scholar search: author:yee "second-life"

although this is self promotion in a sense, I completed a PhD in which I tried to look at all the research linking computer game performance to other cognitive abilities. The last paper published1 as a result of this summarises some of the research I found and also what I found in using computer-game-like cognitive tests.

This is a fascinating area and I think we will some great work in the near future on this. I'd love to hear of any other work out there too.

1 McPherson J., Burns NR. (2008) Assessing the validity of computer-game-like tests of processing speed and working memory

  • 2
    Can you summarize the findings to make the answer self contained? – Artem Kaznatcheev Jun 28 '12 at 17:55

Your Answer


By clicking "Post Your Answer", you acknowledge that you have read our updated terms of service, privacy policy and cookie policy, and that your continued use of the website is subject to these policies.

Not the answer you're looking for? Browse other questions tagged or ask your own question.