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published: 13 September 2011

doi: 10.3389/fpsyg.2011.00226

Do action video games improve perception and cognition?

Walter R. Boot 1 *, Daniel P. Blakely 1 and Daniel J. Simons 2
Department of Psychology, Florida State University, Tallahassee, FL, USA
Department of Psychology, Beckman Institute for Advanced Science and Technology, University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, Urbana, IL, USA

Edited by: Frequent action video game players often outperform non-gamers on measures of per-
Mattie Tops, University of Groningen,
ception and cognition, and some studies nd that video game practice enhances those
abilities. The possibility that video game training transfers broadly to other aspects of cog-
Reviewed by:
Mattie Tops, University of Groningen, nition is exciting because training on one task rarely improves performance on others. At
Netherlands rst glance, the cumulative evidence suggests a strong relationship between gaming expe-
Sarah E. Donohue, Duke University, rience and other cognitive abilities, but methodological shortcomings call that conclusion
into question. We discuss these pitfalls, identify how existing studies succeed or fail in
overcoming them, and provide guidelines for more denitive tests of the effects of gaming
Walter R. Boot , Department of
Psychology, Florida State University, on cognition.
1107 W. Call Street, Tallahassee, FL Keywords: video games, cognitive training, transfer of training, perceptual learning
32306-4301, USA.

DO ACTION VIDEO GAMES IMPROVE PERCEPTION AND cognition. Such differences are a necessary precondition for train-
COGNITION? ing studies if experienced gamers perform comparably to non-
Frequent action game players outperform non-gamers on a vari- gamers, then there is no reason to expect game training to enhance
ety of perceptual and cognitive measures, and some studies suggest those abilities. Even if gamers do outperform non-gamers, the dif-
that video game training enhances cognitive performance on tasks ference might not be caused by gaming: people may become action
other than those specic to the game (Table 1). The possibility of gamers because they have the types of abilities required to excel
broad transfer from game training to other aspects of cognition is at these games, or a third factor might inuence both cognitive
exciting because it countermands an extensive literature showing abilities and gaming.
that training on one task rarely improves performance on others One possible factor that could lead to the spurious conclusion
(see Ball et al., 2002; Hertzog et al., 2009; Owen et al., 2010). of gaming benets on cognition is differential expectations for
Although provocative, the conclusion that game training pro- experts and novices. If gamers are recruited to a study because
duces unusually broad transfer is weakened by methodological of their gaming experience, they might expect to perform well
shortcomings common to most (if not all) of the published studies because of their expertise, and a belief that you should perform
documenting gaming effects. The aws we discuss are not obscure well can inuence performance on measures as basic as visual
or esoteric they are well known pitfalls in the design of clinical acuity (Langer et al., 2010). Imagine that you are recruited to par-
trials and experiments on expertise. Most of these shortcomings ticipate in a study because of your gaming expertise, and the study
are surmountable, but no published gaming study has successfully consists of game like computer tasks. If you know you have been
avoided them all. In this perspective piece, we delineate these aws recruited because you are an expert, the demand characteristics
and provide guidelines for more denitive tests of game benets. of the experimental situation will motivate you to try to perform
We focus on gaming research for three reasons: rst, the claims well. In contrast, a non-gamer selected without any mention of
of broad transfer from game training diverge from typical ndings gaming will not experience such demand characteristics, so will be
in the cognitive training literature (Hertzog et al., 2009). Second, less motivated. Any difference in task performance, then, would
these claims have circulated widely in the popular media and thus be analogous to a placebo effect.
have had a broad impact. Third, game training holds tremendous Almost all studies comparing expert and novice gamers either
promise if the evidence for broad transfer of training bears out. neglect to report how subjects were recruited or make no effort
We restrict our discussion to recent studies of the effects of action to hide the nature of the study from participants. Many studies
games on college-aged participants, but our criticisms apply to recruit experts through advertisements explicitly seeking peo-
similar studies examining the effect of game experience on cogni- ple with game experience, thereby violating a core principle of
tion in children and older adults, and to studies testing the efcacy experimental design and introducing the potential for differential
of various brain tness and cognitive aging interventions. demand characteristics (Boot et al., 2008; Colzato et al., 2010; Karle
et al., 2010). The problem is amplied because gamers often are
familiar with media and blog coverage of the benets of gaming,
CROSS-SECTIONAL STUDIES: COMPARING GAMERS AND so they expect to perform better when they have been recruited
NON-GAMERS for their gaming expertise.
Most game training studies are premised on evidence that expert The danger that expectations, motivation, and prior knowl-
gamers outperform non-gamers on measures of perception and edge drive expert/novice differences in basic task performance September 2011 | Volume 2 | Article 226 | 1

Boot et al. Questioning game effects

Table 1 | Summary of recent video game studies testing college-aged participants.

Cross-sectional studies Reported cognitive measures Study criticisms


Andrews and Murphy (2006) Task switching a,c,d
Bialystok (2006) Response time b,c,d
Chisholm et al. (2010) Search b,c,d
Clark et al. (2011) Change detection c,d
Colzato et al. (2010) Task switching a,c,d
Donohue et al. (2010) Temporal judgment c,d
Feng et al. (2007) Mental rotation, UFOV a,c,d
Granek et al. (2010) Visuomotor skill a,c,d
Green and Bavelier (2003) Various visual/attentional b,c,d
Green and Bavelier (2006a) UFOV, Flanker b,c,d
Green and Bavelier (2006b) Enumeration, object tracking b,c,d
Green and Bavelier (2007) Visual acuity b,c,d
Green et al. (2010) Decision making b,c,d
Karle et al. (2010) Task switching a,c,d
Li et al. (2009) Contrast sensitivity b,c,d
Li et al. (2010) Resistance to masking b,c,d
West et al. (2008) Search, temporal judgment b,c,d
Boot et al. (2008) 12 cognitive measures a,c,d
Castel et al. (2005) Search, attention cuing b,c,d
Irons et al. (2011) Visual attention b,c,d
Murphy and Spencer (2009) Various visual/attentional b,c,d

Training studies Reported cognitive measures Training control group(s) Study criticisms


Feng et al. (2007) Mental rotation, UFOV Ballance d,e
Green and Bavelier (2003) Various visual/attentional Tetris d,e
Green and Bavelier (2006a) UFOV, Flanker Tetris d,e
Green and Bavelier (2006b) Enumeration, object tracking Tetris d,e
Green and Bavelier (2007) Visual acuity Tetris d,e
Green et al. (2010) Decision making The Sims 2 d,e
Li et al. (2009) Contrast sensitivity The Sims 2 d,e
Li et al. (2010) Resistance to masking The Sims 2 d,e
Boot et al. (2008) 12 Cognitive measures Tetris, no game d,e

Overt recruiting (possible differential demand characteristics).
Unspecied recruiting method.
Potential third-variable/directionality problems (cross-sectional design).
No test of perceived similarity of tasks and gaming experience.
Possible differential placebo effects.
Classication is based on the design and reported methods of the study, not on the results. For example, a study producing a null result might still be listed as
subject to third-variable problems if it was cross-sectional. As noted in the text, underreporting of methods makes it unclear how many distinct video game training
replications exist.

could be minimized by recruiting participants without mention Dye and Bavelier, 2010; Trick et al., 2005 for other instances
of video games. We are aware of only two published expert/novice of cross-sectional gamer differences using a covert recruitment
gaming studies adopting a covert recruitment strategy (Donohue strategy, in these cases with children as participants).
et al., 2010; Clark et al., 2011). Encouragingly, both demonstrate a Covert recruitment is less efcient because it requires pre-
gamer advantage, although standard concerns of third-variable screening for videogame experience without any connection to
and directionality problems limit the strength of the conclu- a particular study or measuring experience only after the study,
sions that can be drawn from these studies (see Dye et al., 2009; but it is the best way to avoid having the recruiting strategy itself

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Boot et al. Questioning game effects

contribute to group differences. Even then, expert gamers may that their training would improve their mental rotation perfor-
be more motivated if they believe the tasks tap their expertise in mance and the action game training group likely would predict
gaming (e.g., the tasks are at all game like). Only if subjects have better UFOV performance. The perception of what each of these
no reason to link their gaming expertise to the tasks under study games should improve may drive group differences a placebo
is it reasonable to assume that expert/novice comparisons were effect (note that action game training might also produce a gen-
unaffected by such meta-level knowledge. eral placebo effect that could inuence mental rotation ability, but
Even with optimal recruiting strategies, correlational and cross- we would predict that Tetris would produce a stronger placebo
sectional evidence for expert/novice differences is only suggestive effect in this case).
of gaming benets (i.e., studies that report only cross-sectional dif- The same criticism applies to interventions designed to offset
ferences must be interpreted cautiously, e.g., Bialystok, 2006; West cognitive aging. Even if the training had no effect, interventions
et al., 2008; Chisholm et al., 2010; Colzato et al., 2010; Dono- that participants expect to help could produce a larger placebo
hue et al., 2010; Karle et al., 2010; Clark et al., 2011). Claims effect. For example, the placebo effect on measures of auditory
that gaming causes cognitive improvements require an experi- perception and memory likely would be greater following inten-
mental design akin to a clinical trial; in this case, a training sive practice on auditory tasks than following extended viewing
experiment. of educational DVDs (Mahncke et al., 2006). Control groups that
receive no training (Basak et al., 2008; Berry et al., 2010) are even
VIDEO GAME TRAINING STUDIES less likely to experience any placebo effect, so any differences result-
Game training studies recruit non-gamers and give them video ing from game training could well be due to a differential placebo
game experience (or a specic type of game experience) to effect.
see whether gaming enhances performance on cognitive tasks. No game training studies have taken the necessary precau-
Because they randomly assign participants to treatment and con- tions to avoid differential placebo effects across training conditions
trol groups, training studies permit causal inferences in principle. and outcome measures. In fact, no published studies have tested
But as for any clinical trial, the power of the treatment effect must whether participants expect to improve as a result of training.
be compared to a suitable control group. Placebo baseline condi- Without an adequate control for placebo effects, any conclusion
tions are only effective if people do not know whether they are that game training caused cognitive improvements is premature
in the placebo or experimental condition. In a drug trial, if the the benet could be due to the expectation that a benet should
drug induces side-effects and the placebo tastes of sugar, then the accrue.
placebo control is inadequate any differences between groups
might come from that knowledge coupled with the belief that the ABILITY OR STRATEGY CHANGES?
experimental treatment should have an effect. Even with an active control condition and explicit measures of
Commendably, most game training studies compare the effects what subjects expect will improve following training, game bene-
of action game training to an active control group that receives ts might reect shifts in strategy rather than changes in more basic
game training on a different type of game (e.g., Green and Bave- cognitive or perceptual capacities. Short-term (Nelson and Stra-
lier, 2003, 2006a,b, 2007). If action game training were instead chan, 2009) and long-term game exposure does appear to produce
compared to a group of participants who received no interven- strategy changes (Anderson et al., 2010). For example, experienced
tion, any differential improvement of the action game group could gamers search more thoroughly than non-gamers, leading to better
plausibly be attributed to a placebo effect. The issue of choosing change detection performance (Clark et al., 2011). Changes in how
a proper placebo condition is not always as straightforward as it people approach a task are interesting and important, but without
rst appears, however, and what constitutes an adequate placebo careful evaluation of strategy shifts, better expert performance
control for a gaming intervention is a thorny issue; unlike placebo might wrongly be attributed to more fundamental differences
pills, participants in game training studies know which training in perception and memory. Process tracing approaches such as
intervention they have received. think-aloud protocols, retrospective reports, and eye movement
The problem comes when the treatment and control inter- recording may be fruitful ways to explore the potential contri-
ventions produce differential placebo effects. Most game training butions of strategy to observed differences between gamers and
studies just assume that placebo effects will be comparable in the non-gamers.
control condition (e.g., playing Tetris) and the experimental group
(e.g., playing a fast-paced action game), and none have explicitly INADEQUATE BASELINE FOR TRANSFER EFFECTS
measured differences in the perceived relatedness of the training One of the most fundamental principles of learning is that per-
task to the outcome measures. formance improves with practice. Yet, a puzzling pattern emerges
Imagine a thought experiment with two training groups: one in studies claiming benets of video game training on cognitive
is trained extensively on Tetris and the other on a fast-paced, visu- tasks: in many studies showing benets of gaming, the control
ally demanding action game (e.g., see Green and Bavelier, 2003). groups show no test-retest improvement when repeating the same
Following training, participants view (but do not perform) two tasks after training (Ackerman et al., 2010). Based on learning
transfer tasks: (a) a fast-paced task in which participants detect theory (and most studies using repeated testing), participants typ-
targets ashed in the visual periphery (the useful eld of view, ically improve when performing a cognitive task for a second time.
or UFOV) and (b) a task in which participants mentally rotate Given that the evidence for a training effect is based on differential
block-like shapes. The Tetris training group likely would predict improvement in the experimental and control group, a lack of any September 2011 | Volume 2 | Article 226 | 3

Boot et al. Questioning game effects

test-retest improvement in the control condition gives the appear- Most are cross-sectional studies of expert/novice differences which
ance of a greater benet of training in the experimental condition. provide only suggestive evidence of gaming effects. Table 1 also
Yet, the difference between the experimental and control condi- lists, for each published paper, the methodological concerns that
tions could be interpreted as an unexpected lack of improvement potentially undermine the conclusion of gaming benets. No study
in the control condition rather than as benet of training in has adequately avoided all of these pitfalls, meaning that claims
the experimental group. Studies that do not nd an effect of of gaming benets should be taken as tentative. Future studies
video game training typically have found the expected testretest could readily avoid most of these pitfalls, and such denitive tests
improvements in both the control condition and the experimental are needed. We recommend that the following methodological
condition the improvements are just of equal magnitude (Boot improvements be adopted in all future studies of the effects of
et al., 2008; Ackerman et al., 2010). In order to draw strong infer- video games on cognition.
ences about training benets, it is important to make sure that the
control condition performs as expected and that it is not an anom-
(1) For studies comparing expert and novice gamers, recruiting
alous baseline. A lack of improvement in the control condition is
should be covert. Experts should have no reason to suspect
worrisome unless there is experimental evidence that a particu-
that they are in a study of gamers. Participants should only
lar outcome measure typically does not show improvement upon
be asked about their video game experience at the end of the
study or in a prescreening that is not linked in any obvious
way to the laboratory doing the testing or to the particular
experiment (e.g., prescreening could take place at the start of
Unlike cross-sectional studies, training studies are costly to con-
a semester as part of a large battery given to all participants in
duct, often requiring as much as 50 h of training with dozens
a subject pool).
of participants coming to the lab regularly for weeks or months.
(2) At the end of each study, participants should be asked whether
Although such clinical trials are necessary to draw causal inferences
they are familiar with research or media reports on the benets
about gaming benets, the literature includes far fewer train-
of gaming (or brain training) in order to verify whether or not
ing studies than cross-sectional ones few laboratories have the
such knowledge inuenced performance. They also should be
resources to conduct them.
asked whether they perceived a connection between the tasks
Given the scope of a typical training study, the same training
and their gaming experiences.
results often are split across multiple journal articles that each
(3) In training studies, experimental and control groups should be
report a subset of the outcome measures while noting the use of
equally likely to expect improvements for each outcome mea-
overlapping training groups (e.g., the results of the ACTIVE trial
sure. Such expectations could be measured by having other
exploring the effects of an intervention on cognitive aging have
participants judge whether they think training should affect
been published across many interlinked articles). With unlimited
performance on each outcome measure. Ideally, studies could
resources, an ideal study would test a single outcome measure
use outcome measures that people think are equally likely to
for each trained group in order to avoid interactions among
show improvements from the experimental and control train-
the outcome measures with repeated testing, but doing so is
ing manipulations. Where equal expectations are infeasible,
studies should report the differential expectations.
Many training articles in the videogame literature adopt the
(4) All method details, including recruiting strategies and the out-
approach of reporting different outcome measures in different
come measures included in the study should be reported fully.
papers (see Table 1). Unfortunately, those papers do not consis-
When multiple outcome measures of a single experiment are
tently report all of the outcome measures that were tested or the
reported across multiple articles, the interdependence of the
degree of overlap in the trained subjects across papers (Bavelier,
papers should be stated explicitly.
personal communication). Game training studies should follow
the lead of registered clinical trials by listing all outcome mea-
sures, even when the measures are reported across separate papers. These pitfalls are not unique to videogame studies. They apply
Without doing so, it is unclear how many distinct replications exist. equally to all clinical trials, training studies, and studies of exper-
Moreover, a few published studies have failed to nd benets of tise. We argue that, in the wake of exciting evidence for broad
gaming, raising the specter of a le drawer problem (Castel et al., transfer from video games, they have been somewhat neglected.
2005; Boot et al., 2008; Murphy and Spencer, 2009; Irons et al., Future studies that adopt these new recommendations for recruit-
2011). An early meta-analysis, published before three of these fail- ing, testing, and reporting could provide more denitive tests of
ures to replicate were published, conrms a signicant publication the benets of gaming.
bias and a much reduced effect of game experience on cognition Other techniques and approaches may also provide converg-
when this bias was controlled for, although the game effect size ing evidence for benets and for the mechanisms that underlie
was still signicantly larger than zero after correction (Ferguson, them. For example, neuroimaging might provide evidence for
2007). a distinction between expectation-driven effects, strategy shifts,
and improvements to core abilities. Preliminary work has found
IMPROVED EVIDENCE FOR GAMING EFFECTS neurophysiological differences between action gamers and non-
Table 1 lists recently published studies of the relationship between gamers (e.g., Granek et al., 2010; Mishra et al., 2011), but these
video games and cognitive performance in college-aged subjects. studies are subject to the same concerns about the limits of

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Boot et al. Questioning game effects

expert/novice comparisons. The key will be to use neuroimag- who would improve most, and such differences in improve-
ing to rule out other explanations for gaming effects by map- ment might help characterize the mechanisms underlying gaming
ping performance differences onto brain regions with known benets.
functions. In sum, game training holds great promise as one of the few
Another approach would be to look for individual or group training techniques to show transfer beyond the trained task. The
differences in the impact of training, perhaps looking at special number and diversity of ndings we have discussed appear to pro-
populations. Although most expert/novice gaming studies recruit vide converging evidence for gaming effects, although the extent of
male subjects almost exclusively (expert action gamers are convergence is qualied by the issues we have raised. By adopting a
disproportionately male), training studies typically strive for set of clinical trial best practices, and by considering and eliminat-
equal representation of males and females (e.g., Green and ing alternative explanations for gaming effects, future studies could
Bavelier, 2006a,b, 2007; Feng et al., 2007). With large scale help dene the full extent of the possible benets of gaming for
studies, it should be possible to look for sex differences in perception and cognition. Such denitive tests could have impli-
training effectiveness (see Feng et al., 2007 for a small-scale cations well beyond the laboratory, potentially helping researchers
attempt to do so). The same approach could look at the effects to develop game interventions to address disorders of vision and
of aging or even personality differences as a way to predict attention and remediate the effects of cognitive aging.

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Nelson, R. A., and Strachan, I. (2009). in children: the catch the spies task. commercial or nancial relationships This article was submitted to Frontiers
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J. A., Stenton, R., Dajani, S., Burns, evidence from action video game August 2011; published online: 13 Sep- cle subject to a non-exclusive license
A. S., Howard, R. J., and Bal- players. J. Vis. 8, 19. tember 2011. between the authors and Frontiers Media
lard, C. G. (2010). Putting brain Citation: Boot WR, Blakely DP and SA, which permits use, distribution and
training to the test. Nature 465, Simons DJ (2011) Do action video reproduction in other forums, provided
775779. Conict of Interest Statement: The games improve perception and cog- the original authors and source are cred-
Trick, L. M., Jaspers-Fayer, F., and Sethi, authors declare that the research was nition? Front. Psychology 2:226. doi: ited and other Frontiers conditions are
N. (2005). Multiple-object tracking conducted in the absence of any 10.3389/fpsyg.2011.00226 complied with.

Frontiers in Psychology | Cognition September 2011 | Volume 2 | Article 226 | 6