Study: Gamers ‘shielded’ from perceptual interference, enhancing their learning abilities

Research surrounding video games is often controversial, but a recent study shows the positive role gamers’ perceptual strengths have on their learning ability.

Researchers from Brown University’s Laboratory for Cognitive and Perceptual Learning have published findings in PLOS ONE suggesting people who play video games on a regular basis are not only better and faster perceptual (visual) learners than non-frequent gamers, but are more resistant to perceptual interference, which may lead to more stable, long-term learning.

These findings are in good company. Video games have been the focus of much popular and psychological interest in recent years. Repeated studies have shown that “gamers” possess perceptual and attentional skills superior to non-gamers. For instance, gamers more easily differentiate between multiple distracting stimuli and expand their field of attention with greater ease.

Authors Berard, Cain, Watanabe, and Sasaki’s new study plants another flag on the face of video game research. Specifically, they asked if gamers’ heightened attentional abilities also “shield” them from perceptual interference and distractions, and if this shielding, in turn, enhances their long-term perceptual learning.

They recruited 9 gamers (those playing 5 hours or more/week) and 9 non-gamers (those playing less than 1 hour/week) and put them through two sessions of Task Discrimination Tasks (TDT). These exercises require participants to correctly identify the orientation of a sequence of targets on a screen. The target can appear in any of the screen’s four quadrants or its center, and the test introduces “interference” in the form of different backgrounds of vertical or horizontal lines. The speed and accuracy of responses are then measured. To measure memory consolidation (learning), often a full 24 hours passes between TDTs.

Past TDT research has demonstrated that different types of interference produce different perceptual and learning results. Interrupting a current TDT task with a new interference background, for instance, makes target discrimination more difficult. Once trained on one kind of background (horizontal lines), it becomes harder to learn when a new interference (vertical lines) is introduced. Shortening the time between target and interference screens further disrupts learning and memory processes. Both kinds of interference simulate real-world impediments to learning and were integral to this study.

To test how gamers fared against interference, the researchers administered a specialized TDT over the course of two days. Each session was evenly divided between vertical and horizontal interference, essentially functioning as a major perceptual interruption. On top of this, the targets and interference screens switched quicker and quicker (180 milliseconds to 60 milliseconds). Gamer and non-gamer participants took identical tests with identical interference shifts both days.

Replicating previous studies, results showed that gamers more quickly and accurately identified targets than non-gamers as measured by the increased presentation speed of targets and interference. The researchers were further rewarded with data suggesting gamers are more resistant to interference changes than non-gamers. They could recall, with greater accuracy than non-gamers, the position of targets through interjecting interference a full day later.

All of this suggests that gamers, possibly due to their increased exposure and practice with rapid, competing stimuli, reap long-term learning consolidation benefits in the face of interruptive stimuli. The same mechanisms that help them interpret and discriminate a large amount of speedy material may also help their long-term memories consolidate information.

“It may be possible that the vast amount of visual training frequent gamers receive over the years could help contribute to honing consolidation mechanisms in the brain, especially for visually developed skills,” the researchers explained. “Essentially, this would mean that over the 24-hour period of time between the experimental sessions, more efficient consolidation mechanisms could have been operating in the frequent gamers compared to the non-gamers, resulting in better overall learning.”

The authors of the study believe this vein of research could lead to a new model of visual learning, one “offering insight into how frequent gaming affects not only how we deal with presented information, but also how we retain this information, as well.”