Over sixty years after McLuhan's initial connection between mind and medium we are still trying to assess the nature of media's effects upon us. A team of researchers at the University of Rochester just published a study about the impact of gaming upon an aspect of decision making known as "probabilistic inference", and for the Tactical Gaming community, the news appears to be all good.
Yet when it comes to our media habits, effects are seldom indisputable and they are usually contradictory. Media use gives and takes away. So we need to be a cautious before we jump to the conclusion that gaming has positive real-world consequences.
You have probably already heard about the latest research published in Current Biology. It was covered by The Economist and most English-speaking newspapers around the world. The researchers' conclusion is unequivocal:
"Action video game experience results in more efficient use of sensory evidence. Importantly, these improvements are not restricted to the visual modality, but appear in the auditory modality as well. Moreover, 50 hr of action video game training led to qualitatively similar results in a group of NVGPs [Non Video-Game Players], establishing a causative relationship between action video game experience and improved probabilistic inference."
All this means that video game playing results in a more efficient use of auditory and visual evidence leading to faster and better decision making. Up until now, research into video game effects has only demonstrated that playing video games makes you better at playing video games. Not quite the industrial application that businesses and the military are looking for here. Yet the research paper, imposingly titled, "Improved Probabilistic Inference as a General Learning Mechanism with Action Video Games" concludes that
"improvements after action game training are not limited to playing the game itself, but generalize to new tasks. Gamers, we propose, acquire the ability to dynamically retune the connectivity between the momentary evidence layer and the layer integrating the evidence based on the statistics of the very task they are performing."
The new skills we learn while playing video games are transferable to other activities. The Economist suggests that the implications of this research will be found in improved reaction times within the population (after all, 67% of American households include at least one video-gamer). Furthermore, "if video-gamers are really better equipped to make quick decisions, they might also turn out to be better drivers and end up in fewer accidents."
Forty thousand people died on America`s highways last year. I bet that over the past thirty years of growth in video-gaming, the death rate on America`s highways has seen no significant decrease.
Video-gaming may make for faster decisions, but speed was at the very heart of the problem of the housing crisis and the stock market -- very smart people very quickly making very foolish decisions.
Increased speed and efficiency in decision making does not and will not lead to wiser decisions. We have had over twenty years of "improved" networked collective intelligence, yet our major problems remain unsolved and are growing in consequence and severity.
Gaming will not make us smarter, anymore than the Internet will make us wiser. There is more at work when we make decisions than just speed.
Being fast at fragging is not an item for your resume. At least, not until further research . . .
Dr. Strangelove (a.k.a. [TG] E-Male)
Author of The Empire of Mind: Digital Piracy and the Anti-capitalist Movement, and
Watching YouTube: Extraordinary Videos by Ordinary People, (University of Toronto Press).