What if action games increased our attention span?

Video games, long considered a health hazard, are becoming a new playground for researchers to use them to improve concentration. Daphne Bavelier, a French biologist specializing in cognitive neuroscience, shares with us the results of her research on this topic.

Action video games have a positive effect on vision, mental rotation, attention, and the ability to switch between tasks.says cognitive neuroscientist Daphne Bavelier. In the USA, at the University of Illinois, a specialist has been working for almost 10 years on the benefits of action games for a group of test subjects, regardless of whether they are young or old. reveals to us today.

Big Media: When did you realize that video games could also treat or prevent certain pathologies?

Daphne Bavelier:Around the mid-2000s, my colleagues and I realized that action games have a positive effect on attention control in young people (especially university students) who are in full control of their abilities. Very quickly, we wondered if this result could be used for educational and/or medical purposes.

BM: What is attention control?

DB: it is the ability of a person to choose what to pay attention to and what to ignore. For example, it can be the reaction time to braking when driving, the ability to detect an object in time that could hit us, but it can also be the ability to multitask, such as driving down a congested street while talking. In short, it combines the ability to pay attention to several objects at the same time, with enough flexibility to change the mode of attention, while keeping in “working memory” other goals and subgoals that we are pursuing.

BM: Your research led you to an interest in action games, but have you seen the same effect with more action games like Candy Crush?

DBA: Not all video games develop this attentional control. At the beginning of our research, we were interested in the so-called shooting video games, and since then we have identified certain classes of video games that are equipped with this specific mechanism that promotes increased attention. Therefore, it is very important to talk not about video games in general, but rather about action video games.

Long-term positive effects

BM: In recent years, many applications and games have appeared on our phones that improve our attention or memory. What do you think ?

DB: There were all sorts of articles that led to some confusion about “brain games” [ou “ jeux pour le cerveau ” en français, NDLR]. Then came many brain games promising to improve the concentration of children with learning difficulties or prevent neurodegenerative diseases such as Alzheimer’s. Apps like Candy Crush have been downloaded en masse, whereas in the end, this highly addictive and relatively repetitive game doesn’t offer the rewarding activities we’re looking for to grab attention.

We recently conducted a study with children aged 8 to 12 that found that playing these action games for an average of 12 hours over several weeks improved reading. These therapeutic effects are reflected in the assessments about a year and a half after the start of training. Thus, a snowball effect occurs, which gradually and steadily improves the ability to learn.

BM: So for you, Healthtech is interested in offering action video games that are not only entertaining but also educationally interesting?

DB: Absolutely! And it is for this reason that I joined forces with Professors Eddie Martucci and Adam Gazzali to found Akili Interactive, a company that develops video games based on therapeutic developments. Our game Endeavor RX was recently recognized as a possible treatment for ADHD in the United States.

In this game, an alien research organization tasks the player with hunting down different aliens located in different worlds. To catch and collect them, he must go through a series of obstacle courses where good concentration is highly recommended. Thanks to him, we were able to demonstrate that about a third of the children treated with this “drug 2.0” disappeared attention deficit.

BM: Do future little geeks now have a good reason to stick around playing Mario Kart?

DBA: Again, you have to be careful what you read and hear. There is an optimal dosage that should be followed for these workouts to be effective. This is about half an hour a day for several weeks, but certainly not 12 hours a day! Thus, these play practices are very different from those that some adolescents may have.

BM: We often associate action games with war games, which are often criticized for their brutality. How did you make sure that your creation does not fit into this template?

DB: Our video games exclude any violence. It’s true that historically shooting video games have often been war games, but there are other action games like car racing that offer the same kind of cognitive stimulation without the violence dimension. Moreover, the latter does not contribute to concentration in any way, so there is no point in developing it in our games.

Therapeutic video games for the elderly

BM: Can these games be addressed to older audiences as well?

DB: Not at the moment, but this is one of the developmental axes that we are studying. The key in any educational game is to adapt to the person who is learning. This is an ability that video games allow because they have multiple entry levels. For example, it is irrelevant to offer an elderly person to play a shooting game like those that exist on the market, because it will be too difficult to master, as it is designed in most cases for “average” or even experienced players.

BM: And above all, these games are not intended for people who are not “digital natives”…

DB: Indeed, and this is also a delicate and important point that should be remembered. Even game designers are making more and more efforts to ensure that everyone can easily take control of the game, the main goal remains quite young. But we shouldn’t forget that within 15 or 20 years, the early-morning computer geeks will in turn become retirees and, unlike their ancestors, won’t resist video games. So there is a huge market in the future.

BM: What are your plans for the coming months and years?

DB: We are currently interested in brain plasticity in adults. The goal is to understand its limits and use video games to control it, or at least make it more pliable.

Our work has also led us to an interest in emotional disorders, so we are going to offer tests to depressed or anxious subjects that will increase their attentional control and therefore help regulate their thinking.

And at the same time, we are developing video games for the rehabilitation of vision in young visually impaired children. Here we are again interested in cerebral plasticity in order to understand how we can influence this spectrum from the outside and without drugs.