In which a group of graying eternal amateurs discuss their passions, interests and obsessions, among them: movies, art, politics, evolutionary biology, taxes, writing, computers, these kids these days, and lousy educations.

E-Mail Donald
Demographer, recovering sociologist, and arts buff

E-Mail Fenster
College administrator and arts buff

E-Mail Francis
Architectural historian and arts buff

E-Mail Friedrich
Entrepreneur and arts buff
E-Mail Michael
Media flunky and arts buff

We assume it's OK to quote emailers by name.

Try Advanced Search

  1. Seattle Squeeze: New Urban Living
  2. Checking In
  3. Ben Aronson's Representational Abstractions
  4. Rock is ... Forever?
  5. We Need the Arts: A Sob Story
  6. Form Following (Commercial) Function
  7. Two Humorous Items from the Financial Crisis
  8. Ken Auster of the Kute Kaptions
  9. What Might Representational Painters Paint?
  10. In The Times ...

Sasha Castel
AC Douglas
Out of Lascaux
The Ambler
Modern Art Notes
Cranky Professor
Mike Snider on Poetry
Silliman on Poetry
Felix Salmon
Polly Frost
Polly and Ray's Forum
Stumbling Tongue
Brian's Culture Blog
Banana Oil
Scourge of Modernism
Visible Darkness
Thomas Hobbs
Blog Lodge
Leibman Theory
Goliard Dream
Third Level Digression
Here Inside
My Stupid Dog
W.J. Duquette

Politics, Education, and Economics Blogs
Andrew Sullivan
The Corner at National Review
Steve Sailer
Joanne Jacobs
Natalie Solent
A Libertarian Parent in the Countryside
Rational Parenting
Colby Cosh
View from the Right
Pejman Pundit
God of the Machine
One Good Turn
Liberty Log
Daily Pundit
Catallaxy Files
Greatest Jeneration
Glenn Frazier
Jane Galt
Jim Miller
Limbic Nutrition
Innocents Abroad
Chicago Boyz
James Lileks
Cybrarian at Large
Hello Bloggy!
Setting the World to Rights
Travelling Shoes

Redwood Dragon
The Invisible Hand
Daze Reader
Lynn Sislo
The Fat Guy
Jon Walz


Our Last 50 Referrers

« Ripped from the pages of Friedrich’s sketchbooks… | Main | Building Blocks »

May 29, 2003

Videogames and Learning

Friedrich --

How are computers and videogames affecting brains, thought processes and tastes? Hard to imagine a more interesting culture question these days. Sharon Begley in the Wall Street Journal (not online) reports on the results of a University of Rochester study.

The U. of R. group, led by Daphne Bavelier, a prof of cognitive studies, investigated the visual skills of a group of young people (18-23) who played videogames regularly -- and not just any old videogames, but action videogames -- and compared the results to the skills of a group of nonplayers.

And the winner is ... ? Videogamers showed a pronounced improvement in their ability to pay attention to complex visual environments. They also "could keep better track of more objects simultaneously and process fast-changing visual information more efficiently."

Good news! But hold on. Other studies, Begley notes, have suggested that playing videogames hurts the ability to "concentrate for prolonged periods on reading, writing or solving math problems. And a growing body of research suggests that the virtual behavior that violent games reward can encourage real violence and aggression ... Little provocations are more likely to be interpreted as hostile."

Hmm. What to make of this? And how is it likely to affect the making and experiencing of culture? Infallible clairvoyant that I am, I predict more Whack, Thwam and Kerbloom. What's your guess?



posted by Michael at May 29, 2003



Having spent a good deal of time recently reading Matt Ridley's "Nature via Nurture: Genes, Experience and What Makes Us Human" I'm not surprised to see that these kids' brains are rewiring themselves to deal with the types of challenges that action video games are throwing at their neurons. I am a bit surprised, however, to see that this is reported to have a negative effect on reading, writing and math problem solving. It seems unclear why one form of stimulus would have a negative effect on the brain centers responsible for other types of processing. Frankly, it makes me wonder if the problem is that the kids are spending so much time on the video games that they're neglecting their traditional subjects. In short, I'd like to understand the design of these "other studies" a bit more carefully. Are they comparing the performance of kids who do a lot of video gaming to the performance of non-gaming kids, or to kids who spend a comparable amount of time focusing on reading, writing and arithmetic?

As for your predictions regarding the impact of visual systems like video games on culture, let me toss something into the pot. I read recently about a National Science Foundation proposal for a "Human Cognome Project" which is designed to nail down a lot of slippery issues in cognitive science (i.e., research into how we learn and how we evaluate situations based on incomplete knowledge, etc.) One of the high priority tasks listed for this project would be ways to improve and enlarge the visual display of information because while the brain has a very low bandwidth for information in the form of words and other symbols (how many digits can you hold in your short term memory at once?),it has hugely greater bandwidth for information coming in the form of visual display through the eyeballs. While predictions are always tricky (especially about the future), I would guess that we're going to see more information presented so that it's visually scanable and less presented in a linear, one step-at-a-time fashion. This may not mean more "Whack, Thwam and Kerbloom," but it probably will mean more charts, graphs, and multi-tracking generally. (Remember, you read it here first!)

Posted by: Friedrich von Blowhard on May 29, 2003 1:38 PM

The way they describe videogamers, they just sound like they'd be better bank robbers or special ops fighters than others. So that seems like it would bear out more whack, kerboom. But, what is the percentage of teens (or pre-teens, whatever)who play fast-paced videogames vs. the number who don't? I guess that also dictates how much more kerboom there is. Is this more male than female, or do both genders play equally? I guys have discussed that more girls attend college than boys today. Maybe that's more than self-esteem training...maybe it's also the amount of time spent on video games.

Posted by: annette on May 29, 2003 2:59 PM

More studies obviously needed here!

Funny observation, Annette, and I'd guess you're onto something. I remember reading, years ago, some article about boys and girls and chess -- why are girl chess whizzes so much more rare than boy chess whizzes, that kind of thing. And the one possible explanation that was completely overlooked was "maybe girls are too smart (or sensible) to waste a lot of time getting good at a stupid game."

Posted by: Michael Blowhard on May 29, 2003 3:21 PM

I'm always curious HOW they did those studies, because such an indistinct set of behaviors would intrinsically be difficult to draw some hard causative lines for. I've been dubious about such announcements ever since that bullshit "study" that "concluded" that young girl's self-esteem was systematically crushed in the classroom because they were quieter than boys, when an analysis of the raw data could lead to many conclusions, the most obvious being that girls mature faster than boys, and thus behave accordingly (source: "Who Stole Feminism" by Christina Hoff Sommers). Anecdotally, I did have a teacher once make me promise not to get video games for my kid(s) because she said she can tell which kids have them and which don't to a student by how easy/difficult it is to get and keep their attention.

Posted by: Yahmdallah on May 29, 2003 4:01 PM

I recall reading years ago the results of a study on the cognitive differences between boys and girls. As I recall the only difference was in spatial abilities...boys were better at visualizing in 3D than girls. No difference in math or verbal abilites at all. That speaks to both the video game issue, which as a mom of two teenagers is a completely male thing in our household, and the better chess abilities in boys over girls.

However, both my teenagers are "special needs"--which as far as I can tell means they dont fit into the box at school. My son's psychiatrist described video games as "electronic cocaine" for ADD children. And my dyslexic daughter gets totally confused by all the visual information presented at the same time.

For what it's worth....

Posted by: Deb on May 29, 2003 6:26 PM

I think it is fairly well established that young men and women attending fast jet training courses for the RAF are first tested by their ability to handle computer generated puzzles that require rapid eye and hand coordination. Computer games have given children an ability to handle tests of this type as well as any adult.
On a more interesting note, there are several places within these quite long RAF courses that dropout of students beceomes high. One of them is when rapid eye/brain/hand tasks have added to them the need to verbally explain what is going on over radio to ground control or co pilot. This slight extra workload somehow interferes dramatically with what had previously been done quickly and well.

Posted by: Mike on May 30, 2003 9:39 AM

I offer another individual analysis. My son (17) is an inveterate gamer of the Whack, Thwam and Kerbloom variety for the last 6 years or so. His particular gaming style is keyboarding, rather than the joystick variety. Here are my observations:
- His attention span has not changed markedly in all the years I have known him (17, in all!)
- He has always had a marked ability to draw, and marked inability to write coherently.
- He has developed amazing hand/eye coordination. (drawing, juggling, moving furniture are examples) He can talk about how he does it after he has done it, but not during.
- He has strong math skills, which suffer only from his life-long tendency to retreat behind a glass wall of his own.
- When he finds something he is interested in, be it a book, an artist, or a new subject, he becomes completely lost in it for hours. If he is not interested, I give it a minute, and he is off it.
- A gentler human being I have yet to meet.

Are any of these things products or results of gaming? I have no idea. I think people are attracted to/addicted by pastimes that fill some need. Is this bad or good? I don't know. Should I worry? I don't know.

Posted by: Felicity on May 30, 2003 9:58 AM

An article a few years ago noted that people with experience in shoot-em-up video and arcade games were _much_ better novice real gun shooters than others without such background. Many Army instructors had noticed this; but whether this boost was neurological or just training wasn't clear.

On the subject of women in chess: until fairly recently, no woman had ever played at the grandmaster level, though hundreds of men had. This was true even in Russia, where chess is immensely popular and the Soviet regime promoted non-traditional achievements for women.

There was speculation that some neural quirk held women back. One hypothesis that I remember was that women, 'in the wild', were responsible for watching over the children, and had evolved a wired-in responsiveness to potential child alarms which could not be shut off. This kept women players from the absolutely exclusive focus on the game required at the grandmaster level.

However, in the last decade several women _have_ made grandmaster. Most notable are the Polgar sisters from Hungary. Judit Polgar was the youngest grandmaster ever, breaking Bobby Fisher's record by two months.

Posted by: Rich Rostrom on May 30, 2003 3:59 PM

Chess? I have noticed, in public spaces, bars and fish frys throughout this great nation of ours, that an enormous number of black men are excellent chess players. Yet you don’t really see them in the official chess player ranks. Assume this is because they either don’t see a point in official chess players ranks, can’t get in, or are outright excluded.

Gotta go. Xbox is calling.

Posted by: j.c. on June 2, 2003 12:55 AM

Post a comment

Email Address:



Remember your info?