Study finds number processing task predicts improvements in gaming skill

A particular cognitive ability can predict improvements in computer game playing skill, according to new research.

The study, published in the journal Computers in Human Behavior, examined players of the game Dota 2, a multiplayer online battle arena (MOBA).

The authors of the study recruited 288 participants from an international MOBA tournament and had them complete a test that measured their symbolic number processing ability and working memory capacity. Using the game’s internal ranking system, the researchers collected gaming statistics about the participants immediately after the tournament and again five months later.

They found that players who scored better on the test of symbolic number ability had greater improvements in MOBA skill. But there was no relationship observed between working memory ability and improvements in MOBA skill.

PsyPost interviewed the study’s corresponding author, Justin W. Bonny of Foundry10. Read his explanation of the research below:

PsyPost: Why were you interested in this topic?

Bonny: We were inspired by our own personal experience with multiplayer online battle arena (MOBA) games as well as recent expertise research questioning the degree to which deliberate practice could account for changes in skilled performance.

With regard to MOBAs, the genre is quite different compared to previous action video game research that examined links between cognitive ability and video game experience. When you play a MOBA against other human players, you have individuals who are located in physically different locations that have to work together online as a team in order to defeat the opposing team. In previous video game research, investigators have examined the link between action video game experience, such as first-person shooters, which are quite different from MOBAs, and cognitive abilities. It was observed that individuals with more action video game experience outperformed non-gamers on specific cognitive tasks such as visual attention and working memory tasks. We were interested whether a link between video game ability and cognitive skills would also be presented in a genre as different as MOBA.

Within expertise research there has been growing discussion regarding what leads to the development of expert-level skill. Traditionally it has been the view that deliberate practice is the key aspect to skilled performance. For example, when comparing novice and expert dancers, a main difference is the number of hours each has spent practicing and rehearsing dance routines. Recent studies have questioned the relative importance of deliberate practice to skilled performance. For example, it was observed that when predicting the skill of chess players, quantitative ability and amount of deliberate practice both accounted for performance. A question we asked was whether MOBA player skill was also linked with cognitive ability in addition to cumulative MOBA experience.

What should the average person take away from your study?

We observed that players’ performance on a number processing task predicted changes in MOBA skill, in addition to the number of games played. This suggests that individuals with higher quantitative ability, and more experience, tend to be more skilled when playing MOBAs.

Are there any major caveats? What questions still need to be addressed?

There are two main questions that need to be addressed. First, what is the direction of the relation between quantitative ability and MOBA skill? Although we were able to predict changes in MOBA skill, it is also possible that MOBA skill could predict changes in quantitative ability. Second, does quantitative ability still relate to MOBA skill when non-cognitive measures are included? We only asked participants to complete a small set of cognitive measures. However, there is also evidence that gaming preferences, sociocognitive abilities, and personality traits are also linked to gaming behavior. Would quantitative ability even predict MOBA skill if these other characteristics were considered? Indeed, we found some evidence suggesting this may be the case with quantitative ability predicting MOBA skill only for matches where players were randomly placed on teams – no connection was observed when players opted to pair-up with familiar teammates.

Is there anything else you would like to add?

We have been asked multiple times whether our study suggests that only people who are good at math can excel when playing MOBAs. Besides the fact that our study is correlational in design and cannot determine the causal direction, we found evidence that MOBA experience is the primary factor in predicting changes in MOBA skill. So this suggests that even if a player is poor at math, they may be able to make up for it by playing more games

The study, “Number processing ability is connected to longitudinal changes in multiplayer online battle arena skill“, was also co-authored by Lisa M. Castaneda.