Gaming your way to performance

New research suggests that video games might help improve focus and judgment.

Video gamers are often stereotyped as slovenly, basement-dwelling nerds. But unkempt or clean, they’ll have the last laugh, as new research from across North America continues to emerge suggesting that even if video and computer gaming doesn’t inspire physical activity, it can teach people to think faster, with improved awareness, and make more accurate decisions. And the best part? These heightened skills translate beyond the game, meaning doctors, soldiers and business professionals may soon be able to play their way to enhanced performance.

One such study recently published in Current Biology found that amongst 18- to 25-year-old non-gamers, there was a correlation between those who played action video games for 50 hours, and their ability to make decisions. The study found that when asked to perform specific decision-making tasks in the lab, those who play action games were able to make decisions more quickly than, and with the same accuracy as, those who played strategy-oriented or role-playing games or didn’t play at all.

That means that contrary to popular perceptions of action gamers, they aren’t trigger-happy or impulsive competitors. But while the retail video and computer game industry in North America is worth well over $20 billion, this research isn’t geared toward the gamer with a PS3 or Xbox. Instead, the lessons of gaming are being used to create more-efficient training and development programs. These programs will teach people to manage their uncertainty, heighten their decision-making skills and regulate risk to better their performance in industries such as health care, sciences and security.

One team of researchers at the Queen’s University in Belfast has designed a basic-level game that makes this kind of training possible. They’ve created a prototype game called the World of Uncertainty Quiz that asks participants to answer challenging questions (on history or geography), and then rate themselves on how sure they are of their answer before they submit it. As they move through the timed quiz, users are told whether they are right or wrong, and at they end of the quiz they receive a score that addresses whether their confidence matched their accuracy. With time and practice, the users will learn to modify their behaviour to more accurately describe their judgments of certainty.

Team leader David Newman says the project was born in a research council sandpit, where he and 40 other specialists were asked to imagine new ideas for researching scientific decision-making and uncertainty. “I thought that computer games are the one environment where people expect uncertainty,” he says.

Like Green, Newman sees practical applications for this research, which will train employees to make decisions while compensating for what they don’t know. He uses the example of students training to be veterinary surgeons. “Like the doctors in Grey’s Anatomy, the students tend to believe they are always right. So, put them in a game where they have to manage an epidemic, but make the uncertainties explicit,” he says. The students will have to take immediate action, but “as the game progresses, they have to refine their strategies.” Newman thinks his work will offer significantly different results than other strategic business games. In those, “the only feedback is in the form of profits or share values,” Newman says. He hopes that game designers will soon include his team’s controls and scoring models in their own games.

That’s a process that the U.S. government’s Intelligence Advanced Research Projects Agency (IARPA) is looking to accelerate. IARPA recently announced plans to use video games to try to expose and eliminate some of the cognitive bias that affects the decision-making of American intelligence analysts. Since research shows that this bias tends to increase when analysts are more uncertain, the agency hopes to teach agents heightened awareness, collaboration and critical thinking through what it calls “Serious Games.” IARPA is looking for a developer to build a game that will help users recognize biases and prejudices, saying that “a Serious Game could provide an effective mechanism for exposing and mitigating cognitive bias.” And for the U.S., that may mean looking twice before leaping into the next war in a futile search for weapons of mass destruction.