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Should professional gamers be considered athletes? It’s a contentious question, but if you assume the mind is a muscle then new research appearing in the journal Frontiers in Human Neuroscience suggests that the answer is likely yes.
A team of scientists led by Xianyang Gan of the University of Electronic Science and Technology of China found that expert video gamers — that is, people who ranked in the top 7% in the real-time action strategy game League of Legends — processed information faster and with greater accuracy than beginner players.
To arrive at this conclusion, the scientists leveraged a common experimental paradigm in cognitive psychology called an attentional blink task. In this task, 38 participants, half of whom were elite gamers, were seated in front of a computer for a period of two hours. Participants were asked to watch the screen for signs of rapidly appearing letters. Sometimes, the letters were shown in fast succession; other times they were more spaced out. Each time participants saw a letter on the screen they were asked to tap the corresponding letter on the keyboard. The researchers recorded how many times participants accurately identified letters as well as how many times they missed letters, or “blinked.”
“We found that expert League of Legends players outperformed beginners in the task. The experts were less prone to the blink effect, detecting targets more accurately and faster,” states coauthor Dr. Weiyi Ma, Assistant Professor in Human Development and Family Sciences at the University of Arkansas, USA.
The researchers also recorded electrical activity on the surface of the brain. They did so by having participants wear EEG electrodes on the parietal region (top and side) of their scalp while completing the experiment.
Interestingly, they found that expert gamers showed a stronger “P3b” response — an electrical signal that has been found to play a key role in the attentional blink task.
“Our results suggest that long-term experience of action real-time strategy games leads to improvements in temporal visual selective attention: the expert gamers had become more effective in distributing limited cognitive resources between successive visual targets,” says author Dr. Tiejun Liu. “We conclude that such games can be a powerful tool for cognitive training.”
This research intersects with a growing number of studies that show unique cognitive advantages in elite gamers. For example, one study found that action video game experts had more grey matter volume in the insular sub-region of the brain. Grey matter, for those not familiar with the term, is the brain tissue that contains most of the brain’s neuronal cell bodies. Research has generally found that a higher density of grey matter is associated with higher intelligence. Moreover, other research suggests that elite video gamers have reaction times that are up to four times as fast as the normal person.
While the military has long used active video games as a training tool (think, for instance, of flight simulators for fighter pilots), schools have been slower to adapt. But this may change. Rest assured that students won’t complain if active video gaming becomes a required part of school curriculum.