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Are video games better than homework?

A new study from Ruhr-University Bochum in Germany reveals that playing video games may enhance learning.

While coming home from school and heading straight for the Xbox sounds like a dream, we all know that in reality, most of our years in education were spent at a desk revising or doing homework. However, recent studies have suggested that playing video games may actually benefit cognition, and that people who play video games regularly have more active learning (and memory)-related brain regions.

This study focused on a somewhat unexplored area in gaming research, referred to as ‘probabilistic category learning’. This involves acquiring and classifying knowledge, and using it to predict future events. A very common paradigm of this type of learning is the weather prediction task, which has been used in over half a dozen neuropsychological and neuroimaging studies to date. This task allows researchers to gain insight into forms of learning, cognitive flexibility, and the use of feedback signals in the brain.

The video gamers performed much better at predicting the weather than the non-gamers…

The team, led by first study author Sabrina Schenk, recruited 17 video gamers (those who spent at least 15 hours per week playing action-based video games), and 17 non-gamers. Both groups were asked to perform a simple task, look at three cue cards with different weather patterns, and then predict the weather. Each cue card was only a partially accurate predictor of the weather, and thus the correct prediction had to be determined by the probability from the combination of all three cue cards.

The task worked such that a combination of cue cards may have contained: a card whose pattern predicts a 20% chance of sunshine and 80% chance of rain; a second card with an 80% chance of sunshine and 20% chance of rain; and a final card which predicts a 60% chance of sun and 40% chance of rain. By combining the probabilities of all three cue cards, the correct answer to the question, “Will there be sun or rain?”, would be sun.

The scans of gamers showed greater activity in the hippocampus…

All participants of both groups were asked to predict the weather, and were immediately told whether their prediction was right or wrong. The subjects performed this task again and again, with different combinations of cue cards, and thanks to the feedback they received, they learned which card combinations were associated with which weather condition.

After the completion of the weather prediction task, each participant completed a questionnaire that tested the amount of knowledge retained about various cue card combinations. The results of this study not only highlighted that the video gamers performed much better at predicting the weather than the non-gamers, but also that gamers retained far more knowledge about the cue card combinations and the associated weather outcomes.

Who knows, maybe playing video games instead of doing homework is helping us become better learners…

The brain activity of each participant was also recorded using MRI scans, which revealed that both gamers and non-gamers showed the same level of activity in brain areas linked to attention, executive function, and memory-associated regions. However, a notable difference between the groups was that the scans of gamers showed greater activity in the hippocampus – which is a vital area of the brain involved in sematic memory, visual imagery, and cognitive control.

“Our study shows that gamers are better in analysing a situation quickly, to generate new knowledge, and to categorise facts – especially in situations with high uncertainties,” Schenk explains.

This research could not only help us feel less guilty about procrastinating work by playing video games, but also aid future research into memory loss, linked to decreased activity in the hippocampus. So, who knows, maybe playing video games instead of doing homework is helping us become better learners?


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