Long-time readers know: I like research that surprises me.
If a study confirms a belief I already have, I’m glad for that reinforcement. However, I have more to learn when a study challenges my beliefs.
As you’ll see below, I’m not always persuaded by challenging research. But: it’s always fun to explore.
A study published last October grabbed my attention with its surprising title: Action video game play facilitates “learning how to learn.”
That title includes several shockers.
First: it suggests that action video games might be good for people.
Second: it suggests that they might even be good for learning.
Third: it suggests that “learning how to learn” is a thing. (I’m more skeptical about this concept than most; that’s a topic for another blog.)
Teacher and parent conversations often focus on the potential harms of action video games — both for children’s characters, and for their learning. So, this strong claim to the contrary certainly invites curiosity — even skepticism.
In fact, this study comes from researchers who have been looking at the cognitive benefits of action video games for several years now. Their work prompts lots of controversy; in other words, it might help us learn more about learning!
This study starts out with lots of promise…
Sims vs. Call of Duty
When you read research for a living (as I do), you start to develop an informal mental checklist about research methodology.
This study checks lots of boxes:
Plausible, active control group? Check.
Appropriate uncertainty/humility? Check.
Sometimes when I look at surprising findings, I quickly dismiss them because the research paradigm doesn’t withstand scrutiny.
In this case, it all holds together well. (I should emphasize: I’m NOT an expert in this field, and other researchers might spot flaws that I don’t.)
The overall idea is straightforward enough. Researchers worked with two groups of college students.
First, researchers tested students’ “attentional control” and “working memory.”
Next, students played 45 hours (!) of video games.
The control group played games like Sims 3: in other words, a strategy video game, but not an action video game.
The study group played Call of Duty: Blacks Ops, and other such games that involve movement and aiming and navigating (and shooting).
Finally, they retested students’ attention and working memory. Here’s the kicker:
Researchers used new tests of working memory and attention. And, they watched to see how quickly students improved at these new tests.
Researchers wanted to know, in a tidy shorthand, did playing action video games help students “learn how to learn” these new attention/memory tests?
Results, and Implications
Did playing action video games help students learn new attention and memory tasks? YES.
Unfortunately, the research method here makes it hard to quantify the size of the benefit. (Bayesian statistics, anyone?) But the headline is: students in the action-video-game group did better than the strategy-video-game group at learning new cognitive skills.
What, then, should we conclude from this surprising research?
First: We have LOTS of reasons to dislike action video games, like “first-person shooters.” Many include morally repellent plot lines and actions. For some folks, the whole idea of a “game about shooting” is yucky.
At the same time, this study offers us a compelling, tantalizing clue — one that might encourage us to notice these games.
Here’s what I mean…
Second: If you focus on research into cognitive science, you know a) that working memory is ESSENTIAL to learning, b) we don’t have very much, and c) we don’t know of artificial ways to create more.
In other words: working memory limitations create a terrible bottleneck that constricts the potential for learning.
Other have tried to find ways to increase working memory. Some claim to do so. Very consistently, these research claims do not replicate.
This study claims to have found a way to help increase working memory.
I can hardly overstate the importance of that news.
So Many Ifs
IF playing action video games improves working memory (we’re not yet sure it does,) and
IF those WM gains result in better learning (this research team didn’t test that question), and
IF we can figure out WHY and HOW such games work their working-memory magic, and
IF we can get those benefits with a game that doesn’t include shooting/killing (and all those moral qualms (IF you have those moral qualms)),
THEN we might be at the beginning of a very exciting process of discovery here.
I’m very interested in following this series of possibilities. Honestly: finding ways to enhance working memory would be a real game-changer for our profession…and potentially our species.
In brief: WATCH THIS SPACE.
(A Final Note)
This study doesn’t look at “learning how to learn” in the way that most people use that phrase.
Typically, “LHTL” involves teaching students about cognitive science and encouraging them to use those use that knowledge as they study.
This research, however, isn’t investigating that strategy.
Zhang, RY., Chopin, A., Shibata, K. et al. Action video game play facilitates “learning to learn”. Commun Biol 4, 1154 (2021). https://doi.org/10.1038/s42003-021-02652-7