For a relatively young medium, the amount of scientific literature on video games is stunning. Scientists have been studying the effects of PC and console games for years, but with the explosion of iPhone and Android titles, mobile games are now up for dissection as well.
A new study by researchers in Singapore has measured the effects of mobile gaming on cognition. Mobile gaming, in general, is good for your brain, increasing spatial awareness, memory, and even verbal tasks, the study finds. Those who dislike violent games, though, may be dismayed to learn that action games (such as shooters) confer the keenest benefits on their players.
The study, performed by Nanyang Technological University psychologists Adam Oei and Michael Patterson, examined five different genres of games for devices running Apple’s mobile operating system, also known as iOS. "Hidden Expedition – Everest" is a "hidden object" title, in which players hunt for items in an intricate landscape to advance the story. "Memory Matrix" is the name of both a game and a genre, which requires players to memorize and replicate a pattern on a 3-by-3 grid.
Most casual gamers know " Bejeweled 2," a "match 3" title where players match three similarly colored gems on a grid to eliminate them and introduce new gems to the board. "Modern Combat: Sandstorm" was the star attraction, as a first-person shooter action game.
Finally, the researchers added in a game that didn't require any split-second decisions or spatial awareness: "The Sims 3," a popular life-simulation game that only requires players to occasionally see to the needs of virtual simulacra people.
Each participant was assigned one game, and asked to play on their smartphones for an hour a day, five days a week for one month. After this month of “training,” they were then asked to complete various tasks designed to test their memory, visual search and other abilities.
"Modern Combat" helped players improve in three areas where no other group did: attentional blink, multiple-object tracking, visual search and cognitive control. The first of these tasks involves tracking one target before rapidly moving to another; the second measures how efficiently players can track multiple targets at the same time, and the third involves filtering out distracting stimuli.
As any action gamer knows, these are all vital tasks for success in a shooter, where multiple enemies will move and attack against a chaotic backdrop. Positioning your character and prioritizing targets are key elements in action games, which may account for the transference of skills between game and laboratory task. [See also: The 10 Best Zombie Games of All Time ]
While the benefits of playing the puzzle and simulation games were more modest, players still became more effective at completing certain tasks. Perhaps unsurprisingly, they performed considerably better at finding objects in a visual search exercise, and somewhat better at verbal memory assignments after playing these types of games.
This study is good news for budding gamers, but gamers reared on PC and console titles may not find much of a benefit to picking up mobile titles. "We assume that hardcore game players may already have received all the cognitive benefits they could get from playing action games," Patterson said.
What is still unclear, however, is “whether the effects would be as large in a mobile platform compared to a console or PC with bigger screens," Oei said.
Oei said that casual players may benefit from playing other types of games, but core gamers tend to be fairly broad in their consumption of different genres. "It's difficult to find gamers that have exclusively played one genre of video game so that we could study their performance before and after playing another genre of games," Patterson said.
The researchers are also quick to point out that performing better in a laboratory setting does not necessarily equate to increased efficiency in real life. "I think people should use video games as any entertainment,” Patterson said, “to do as something that they enjoy in their spare time, without taking time away from socializing, exercise or work.”