Research shows action video game players have improved cognitive function such as better task-switching (i.e., quickly alternating between multiple separate tasks) ability and visual processing compared to non-players. New research published in PLOS ONE found that expert StarCraft players have specific gaze control abilities that allow them to perform better in game than low skill players.
Many popular competitive video games are real-time strategy (RTS) games, which require players to engage in complex task-switching strategies and make appropriately timed responses. “It is probable that considering these characteristics of an RTS game, positive effects of playing RTS games on cognitive processes (reaction time and problem-solving ability) occur,” hypothesized study author Inhyeok Jeong and colleagues. Namely, the researchers were interested in gaze control ability, which is a necessary skill to quickly process visual information, in StarCraft players, a popular RTS game.
The researchers recruited 16 participants who were StarCraft players through their university’s bulletin board and divided participants into the Expert group and the Low Skill group using their experience and official StarCraft ranking. The Expert players had played StarCraft more than 3 times a week for at least 6 months and are in the top 10% in StarCraft ranking. The Low Skill players had not played for more than 6 months and were in the bottom 50% of ranked players.
“For the present study, three sample games (called tasks) with different levels of difficulty, Easy Task, Moderate Task, and Hard Task, were programmed using the StarCraft Campaign Editor,” wrote the researchers. “The difficulty of each task depended on how many jobs were required and how many Zones were in play at the same time. When more jobs were required and more Zones were active at the same time, the difficulty of the task increased.”
All participants sat 40 inches away from the monitor and were instructed to keep their heads at that distance for the entirety of each task. Participants’ gaze movements were recorded by an eye tracker. Each task lasted 3 minutes.
Behavioral performance in the Easy task was defined as the total number of constructed buildings and produced units combined. In the Moderate and Hard tasks, behavioral performance was defined as the total number of constructed buildings and produced units combined multiplied by the number of destroyed enemy units. The researchers also measured the number of key presses and mouse clicks per minute (defined as Actions Per Minute).
There were two types of gaze movements the researchers were interested in: saccades, which refers to fast eye movements that dramatically change visual input; and fixations, which refers to eyes remaining stable on a point.
Results show no differences in behavioral performance on the Easy task between Expert and Low Skill players. For the Moderate and Hard tasks, however, Expert players performed better than Low Skill players. There were no differences in Actions per Minute between Experts and Low Skill players on any of the tasks. Experts distributed their gaze more widely than Low Skill players. Experts had a higher saccade percentage and lower fixation percentage than Low Skill players regardless of task difficulty.
Overall, Expert players performed better than Low Skill players only on the Moderate and Hard tasks (likely due to the Easy task being too easy to reveal substantial group differences). Also, there were no differences in Actions per Minute between skill levels indicating that the Experts did not perform better simply by pressing more keys and clicking the mouse more often.
The results also suggest gaze movement is important for this behavioral improvement. Experts had overall more saccades and lower fixations, which likely helped their ability to accumulate more information quickly while also not fixating so long on one area of the screen. This also suggests Low Skill players need to fixate for a longer time to adequately absorb information.
The researchers cite some limitations to this work. “We did not record the participants’ experience in playing other esports or their years of esports experience. Therefore, we cannot rule out the possibility that a history of playing other esports affected the difference in gaze movement between the Expert players and the Low Skill players.”
The study, “Difference in gaze control ability between low and high skill players of a real-time strategy game in esports“, was authored by Inhyeok Jeong, Kento Nakagawa, Rieko Osu, and Kazuyuki Kanosue.