Fun Fact: Killing Zombie Nazis Is Good For Your Brain

A new study out of the University of Toronto shows that first-person-shooter (FPS) action video games can actually help your brain by improving a range of perceptual skills.

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Apr 29 2012, 2:00pm

While I was busy in 1993 killing hordes of mutant zombie Nazis in Castle Hollehammer, my parents thought I was “melting my brain.” Well, it's finally time for my just deserts. A new study out of the University of Toronto shows that first-person-shooter (FPS) action video games can actually help your brain by improving a range of perceptual skills. Aside from the obvious moral obligation I felt to violently slay my fascist undead enemies, it's nice to know, in retrospect, that I was polishing my thinker as I unloaded pounds and pounds of virtual lead into pounds and pounds of virtual Nazi-flesh.

Sijing Wu, Ian Spence, and their team used a combination of spatial attention tasks and EEG readings to measure if, and how, playing shooter video games improves attentive abilities. The paper, which will be published in the June 2012 issue of the_ Journal of Cognitive Neuroscience_, makes a strong case that shooter video games act to amplify our ability to ignore distractions and focus our perceptions, especially in the visual domain.

Wu et al compared two groups, each of whom played 10 hours of either an FPS action game or a 3D-puzzle game. (They used the popular WWII-themed game Medal of Honor in the FPS group. . .maybe it's all this Nazi-killing that helps our brains?) After ten hours of play, subjects performed a spacial attention task which involved quickly locating a target on a screen amid a set of "distractor" images. Subjects in the FPS group performed better, and EEG readings of their brains suggested how they performed better:

Players may achieve more efficient. . .allocation of attention, possibly facilitating more efficient early filtering of irrelevant information. . . [improving] their ability to suppress the processing of distractors over a wide field of view.

In other words, 10 hours of shooting primed the certain brain regions to be more discerning regarding visual attention — what I will dub right now the "aim-at-the-zombie-Nazis-but-not-the-brick-walls" effect. According to Wu et al’s EEG data, the brain region likely responsible for the observed sharpened visual attention is the lateral intraparietal cortex, which is a region primarily concerned with guided eye movement and short-term memory, both of which are necessary for singling out objects-of-interest in the visual field.

So, FPS games make us better at visually attending than games like Tetris. Aside from the aiming factor, I wonder if the emotional life-and-death roller coaster of the standard FPS reinforces the effect – maybe that little bit of stress you feel when you're being shot at makes you focus more energy on the task at hand, which is of course, a visual task. Time to stick the EEGs back on our scalps and get back to the castle.

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