Lords, ladies and video games

I attended the All-Party Parliamentary Group on Scientific Research in Learning and Education yesterday to discuss “What is the potential impact of technology, such as computer gaming, on the brain?” alongside Baronness Susan Greenfield and we were pleased to be able to present to a packed committee room.

I’ve never met Greenfield before, who was a big influence on me when I decided to become a neuropsychologist, and it was a genuine pleasure to meet her in person.

We started off the talks and it turns out we agree on quite a lot. Greenfield doesn’t want to ban computer games or internet applications but feels parents should be more involved in their kids’ media use to guide them to use it safely and sensibly. She also feels that most kids use technology well and get benefits from it but is concerned about the few that might “fall through the cracks”, or as I would describe them, the few who are a high risk group for unhealthy use.

It seems we agree on the implications, and it was clear the Greenfield is motivated by a genuine concern for young people.

Her talk was sincere, very well delivered but unfortunately her argument was poorly lacking in terms of its scientific content, and I’m afraid to say, wouldn’t pass muster as an undergraduate thesis. This was not least because she discussed not a single study on the effect of games or the internet.

I started my talk by searching PubMed, the database of medical research, to show that there are more than 1,500 published articles in the medical literature that directly discuss computer games.

Many of these studies investigate the concerns she has about whether games might be affecting attention spans or whether online communication could be harming the social life of young people, but she seems unwilling to consider any of them. For someone who is leading the public debate on this issue I find this, at best, baffling.

Greenfield’s justification is entirely based on the idea that young brains are sensitive to their environment, which shapes their development, and so any risks from screen technology might cause significant and unwanted neurological changes. This is, of course, plausible but cannot be evaluated in isolation from the studies that have directly tested the idea.

While I agree with the justification, I’m afraid I found her model of how this might occur also lacking. Not least as it had unspecified and too-broad-to-be-plausible aspects such as dopamine release, caused by gaming, leading to a reduction in frontal lobe activity.

If you want to see my talk, I’ve put the slides from my talk online as a PowerPoint file and apparently, both sets of slides will appear on the website of the Institute for the Future of the Mind shortly, possibly with video as the talks were filmed.

During the talk I made it clear that ignoring the evidence on this issue does a disservice to young people and discussed some of the key findings from the last few decades of research in this area – not least that action video games have been shown to improve cognitive function but that we should be concerned about content and age appropriateness (e.g. violence) and displacement of other activities (such as education, exercise and so on). I also discussed evidence showing that the internet seems to be benign or beneficial for the social lives of the majority of young people who use it.

Greenfield noted, however, that not all of her concerns are addressed by the studies I mentioned (for example, that computer games might affect the ability to use metaphor and understand abstract concepts) and that some, possibly unwanted, outcomes will just not be measurable. Even though I find some of her concerns a little far-fetched, she has a valid point on how we should be aware of the limits of what empirical research can deliver for complex social issues.

The discussion afterwards was lively and constructive. We had input from someone working on the Digital Economy Bill, a head teacher, a paediatrician, educationalists, a Lord who – against all my prejudices – clearly knew shit loads about computers and several people who just spoke from their experience as parents.

Afterwards, Greenfield invited everyone for a drink and was a funny and engaging host and I got the chance to thank her for inspiring me when I was starting out.

I have a different opinion of Greenfield after the debate, as I previously suspected she had been struck by reactionary technofear but was mistaken, as she does want children to benefit from technology. She obviously thinks a lot of internet culture is trash, but when you look at the constant stream of seemingly irrelevant in-jokes and funny cat videos, I can hardly blame her for this.

Nevertheless, I think her passion for helping young people has overtaken her obvious good sense as a scientist and a scholar on this issue, and I would join the call for her to write her ideas up for publication in a scientific journal both to clarify her position and to stimulate engagement with the large evidence base that she is currently unfamiliar with.

I have criticised Greenfield’s more alarmist public statements in the past, but with her passion and experience as a neuroscientist, a well-informed Baroness Greenfield would be a massive advantage to the debate on how we ensure children learn to manage technology to their best advantage.

ppt of slides from my talk.
Link to All Party Parliamentary Group description.

Full disclosure: The Institute of Psychiatry kindly helped fund my airfare and I wouldn’t have been able to attend without them, so many thanks for their support and belief in public and policy engagement.

7 Comments

  1. Posted March 18, 2010 at 7:12 pm | Permalink

    Interesting article, and I hope that Dr. Greenfield will take your advice to rely more heavily on the extensive literature.
    I think it might be worth weakening one of the claims in your post, though. You mentioned that you discussed “some of the key findings from the last few decades of research in this area – not least that action video games have been shown to improve cognitive function.” The evidence that video game training benefits cognition outside the laboratory is mimimal at best. The transfer effects from playing video games to cognitive tasks have been limited to basic laboratory tasks that often are tightly coupled to the nature of the game itself and have limited generalization to real world tasks. And, at least one large-scale study found little benefit even on these basic tasks despite 30 hours of training and a large sample size (Boot et al, 2008. Disclosure: I was a co-author on this one, although Boot and Kramer really were the lead authors).
    Even if action video games do turn out to have benefits, it’s not clear that they’d be worth the hours of training that could be needed. If your goal is improved cognitive functioning, you’d be better served by spending your time exercising.
    Cited source:
    Boot, W. R., Kramer, A. F., Simons, D. J., Fabiani, M., Gratton, G. (2008). The effects of video game playing on attention, memory, and executive control. Acta Psychologica, 129(3), 387-398.

  2. hat_eater
    Posted March 18, 2010 at 7:27 pm | Permalink

    Thank you for this informative and balanced post. I am relieved to hear that Baroness Greenfield seems to be a sensible person after all, even if some of her views are still at odds with the published literature. I had a different, and much less favourable, picture of her. I stand corrected.
    I hope your talks will have a positive influence on the future developments in the APPGSRLE.

  3. alleycatsphinx
    Posted March 18, 2010 at 11:21 pm | Permalink

    As a video game designer I have to laugh when I see comments like this:
    “Even if action video games do turn out to have benefits, it’s not clear that they’d be worth the hours of training that could be needed. If your goal is improved cognitive functioning, you’d be better served by spending your time exercising.”
    Really? What an authoritative declaration. That’s the sort of thing newspaper headlines credit to “Expert Opinions.”
    1. Video game designers are very aware of behavioral psychology.
    2. Video games DO influence people’s behavior (especially their spending behavior.)
    That said, the question of “do video games make children violent” is so off from functional reality as to be comical. Do books? Does TV? Does playing cowboys and indians?
    Every new and widely adopted technology has a transformative effect on the generation using it. This is how culture advances, and it’s how culture always advanced. People will ask stupid and suspicious questions of the new technology based on ignorant generalizations, and by the time general audience of questioners begins to actually grasp the reality, the next new scary technology has arisen.
    Usually whatever negative effects the technology has are either designed out over time due to negative feedback, or adopted as new virtues due to their utility.
    To lump all video games together as though they were the same is just ignorant. Games change and diversify at an incredible pace – whatever conclusions you can draw likely only apply to the specific games you’re playing. Does Rockband make kids violent (or perhaps encourage drumming?) Does Farmville? Club Penguin? World of Warcraft?
    Moreover, game design has intent. If I wanted to design a game that trains soldiers to specific tactics (and I’ve worked on an army training vis-sim (JFETS 2)) it ends up as a very different experience from a game aimed at entertaining teen aged girls.
    If we want to sell a game to young men, it’s very often violent. If you want a verifiable conclusion it’s this: young men encourage the creation of violent video games.
    We understand demographics, we understand how game mechanics psychologically impact people, and we use this knowledge in making games.
    Check out this great DICE lecture from Jessie Schell, and give the topic some deeper thought.http://g4tv.com/videos/44277/DICE-2010-Design-Outside-the-Box-Presentation/

  4. Daniel J. Simons
    Posted March 19, 2010 at 1:57 am | Permalink

    to Alleycatsphynx:
    I think you might have taken my statement about video games and exercise the wrong way. I wasn’t making an argument that video games are inherently bad or even that violent games are bad. My comment was more specific than that: Video games only train the specific behaviors that are included in them. Practicing crossword puzzles makes you better at crossword puzzles but doesn’t improve cognition more generally. Similarly, practicing a first-person-shooter game will train those aspects of coordination and cognition that are central to the game, but that training typically won’t generalize broadly to other unrelated tasks. it won’t help you remember your friend’s name or other aspects of cognition. If that sort of focused training is your goal, then video games might be a great (and fun) way to achieve them.
    There’s a reason that the quote you criticized was authoritative. It is based on extensive research (I should have just provided citations in support, so I’ll remedy that below). Here’s what I said: “Even if action video games do turn out to have benefits, it’s not clear that they’d be worth the hours of training that could be needed. If your goal is improved cognitive functioning, you’d be better served by spending your time exercising.”
    Below is a review paper of the extensive literature showing that mild aerobic exercise leads to substantial preservation of cognitive functioning and the brain itself with aging. Unlike video game training, which hasn’t been shown to have huge effects on cognition, exercise has. 30-50 hours of video game training likely wouldn’t have the same benefits for cognition in general as 30-50 hours of walking. Of course playing games might be more enjoyable and have other benefits. Just don’t treat them as a panacea for everyday cognitive limitations or aging.
    Reviews covering the effects of exercise on cognition (top journals):
    Hertzog, C., Kramer, A.F., Wilson, R.S., & Lindenberger, U. (2009). Enrichment effects on adult cognitive development: Can the functional capacity of older adults be preserved and enhanced? Psychological Science in the Public Interest, 9(1), 1-65.
    Hillman, C.H., Erickson, K.I. & Kramer, A.F. (2008). Be smart, exercise your heart: Exercise effects on brain and cognition. Nature Reviews Neuroscience, 9, 58-65.

  5. alleycatsphinx
    Posted March 19, 2010 at 4:46 am | Permalink

    I understand where you’re coming from; there was indeed a specific series of games marketed as “Brain Training” with the claims that they improved cognition, especially in older people.
    Those claims were proven bull, and never substantiated in the first place. Moreover, having played the games themselves, I know they were little more than a battery of undergraduate psychology experiments. Flashing the word RED in blue letters and asking you to read the word aloud. Sure you might specifically train up your ability to do that, but why?
    It was a game, like most games, designed to sell. It used the appealing authority of psychology to achieve that.
    “Just don’t treat them as a panacea for everyday cognitive limitations or aging.”
    If a significant number of people outside of marketing are making this claim I’d be a bit afraid. I’d ask what games are they claiming it for?
    When you say, “Video games only train the specific behaviors that are included in them.” which games do you mean?
    Perhaps you’re thinking of the cognitive claims about the the “Wii” in old folks home that encourage them to stand up while playing bowling together. If exercise is good, perhaps these games are indeed improving cognition? What about a more active game like Dance Dance Revolution – my 60 year old mother plays it in lieu of dance aerobic videos. Does the walking study validate that game as improving cognition?
    If so, would the same findings based on these activity levels apply to healthy young children as well as seniors seniors?
    Or maybe it’s the edge that comes with competition. Chessmasters may not be improving their general cognition, but I would assume there’s some generalized development. At least they burn some calories at a tournament.
    What about games that challenge people’s ability to socially manipulate other people (such as the corporate espionage among the 56,000 concurrent players of EVE online.) There was a corporate coup that required months of espionage and involved thousands of players lying and subverting one another. Is that part of this inquiry?
    What I’m trying to say is that the research is much too generalized – it seems to have a very fuzzy and outdated vision of games. Worse, it feels very marketing driven. Does someone come to you and ask if you have any experiment that would make good headlines? Is that how funding works? If so I completely sympathize with your position… =(
    We are attacking strawmen with questions like “Do videogames improve cognition?” or “Do videogames encourage violence?” You may as well ask “Does being entertained cause people to be fat?” Whatever causation you find is lost in a sea of noise, and doesn’t map from one game to the next.
    It doesn’t help the public debate, either, because it’s only addressing the most foolish of claims.
    If you want to get useful data, you need to examine the individual mechanics within games. What timing of reward cycles seems to encourage the most addictive levels of attention? What exposure timings allow people to memorize strings, or particular motor skills? I would love to know such things. Moreover, the general public should become more aware of how they can be manipulated.
    Look at what the credit card companies are already exploiting….
    I really appreciated your amazing research on selective attention, by the way, it’s an honor to share debate with you on the internet. ;) I think psychology in games is a very worthy topic, but I’d like to see improvements in the research and understanding.

  6. Posted March 19, 2010 at 7:53 pm | Permalink

    To Alleycatsphynx — yes, really interesting points about different video games potentially having different benefits. I couldn’t agree more. DDR would have benefits for cognition to the extent that it is a form of aerobic exercise. The key is that it’s not the game itself, but the exercise that has the general effects.
    I was less referring to marketing claims of brain training than to the recent empirical work claiming transfer from experience playing first-person shooter games for anywhere from 10-50 hours (e.g., see research by Green & Bavelier). The benefits from those laboratory studies for real-world cognition are less clear.
    I could imagine many video games having specific benefits as well. From an academic perspective, it’s important to show that the benefits are due to the game itself and not due to the other activities that go along with the game. That is, academics would want to know whether the specific task in DDR has any benefit above and beyond the effects of aerobic exercise that you could get in many other ways. That’s the academic concern, but not the practical one. If playing a game gets you exercise or enhances your social networks, that’s a practical benefit even if the benefits are not directly caused by the game itself.

  7. Posted July 26, 2010 at 7:19 am | Permalink

    I hear a lot of talk about how playing fighting video games leads to violent behavior in teen aged kids and in my opinion that’s just a bunch of baloney. Violence has been around long before video games ever existed, in fact, long before there were televisions or even electricity to play video games, people have acted in violent ways. The truth is that there has always been violence in the history of human beings and to blame the cause of that behavior on anything other then the fact that there are violent people in the world is ridiculous.
    Human nature sometimes gets people to act in violent ways and some people are more inclined to express themselves that way than others. Playing a video game that allows people to express their violent tendencies in a game is a safe way to get your aggression out without hurting yourself or others. If anything, it’s a healthy release of stress and tension.
    What Do You Think About Video Game Violence?


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