Neurocognitive research finds that gamers are better at timing their reactions than non-gamers

A study in a virtual reality environment found that action video game players have better indirect temporal skills than non-gamers. They are better at preparing to time their reactions in tasks that require quick reactions and do it automatically, without consciously working on it. The paper was published in Communication Biology.

Many research studies have shown that playing video games enhances cognitive function. These include an increased ability to learn on the fly and improved attentional control. The extent of these improvements is unclear and also depends on the game.

Success in action video games depends on players’ ability to make accurate responses at the right time. Players benefit from practice in which they improve their time-related expectations for in-game developments, even when they are not aware of it. This largely unconscious process of processing time and preparing to react in time based on expectations of how the situation the person is in is called contingent time processing.

It stands in contrast to explicit temporal processing in which a person makes a conscious effort to prepare to act in time. Implicit temporal processing has attracted the interest of researchers because it is precisely these mechanisms that appear to be impaired in patients with schizophrenia and other major mental disorders. Could video games be used as a rehabilitation tool for these disorders?

“Video gaming is one of the most widespread recreational activities around the world and across generations,” said study author Francois R. Foerster, a cognitive neuroscientist at the Center for Research in Cognition & Neuroscience at the Université Libre de Bruxelles. “Like other everyday activities, video gaming may have shaped the way we perceive and think about the world for several decades. Understanding the impact of video gaming on our brains seems to me to be a critical societal quest that can lead to the development of fun therapeutic solutions.”

To study whether video games actually improve implicit temporal processing, Foerster and his team devised a study in which they monitored the reactions and electrical brain activity of a group of gamers and a group of non-gamers in a virtual reality environment. The study included 23 gamers (mean age 25, 4 female), defined as those who spent at least 5 hours per week playing action video games in the past year, and another 23 participants who played little or no action video games in the past year (mean age 27 years old, 7 women).

Each participant sat in a chair and was immersed in a virtual reality environment consisting of an empty room in which they faced four robots. Each of the robots had a light whose color and onset were manipulated (target).

“In our work, a target appears with varying delays after an initial warning signal. Participants were informed of the two possible preperiods, i.e., 400 ms (short PP) or 1000 ms (long PP). The warning signal and target were built into robots, which created an environment closer to video games and more fun than traditional computer-based tasks. Participants reacted to the target by pressing a button as quickly as possible,” the authors explained.

The occasions when a participant pressed a response button before the stimuli were presented were recorded and used as an assessment of impulsivity. Eye-tracking software was used to monitor the participants’ binocular gaze during the experiment, and the researchers also monitored their brain’s electroencephalographic (EEG) activity continuously.

Contrary to widely held beliefs in the general public that video gamers are impulsive, analysis of early responses (response before the lights/targets were presented) showed no evidence to support this. There was no difference between players and non-players in the number of premature responses. Compared to non-gamers, the researchers found that gamers showed improved responsiveness when the previous period was long.

“In our daily lives, we are constantly interacting with our environment in real time,” Foerster told PsyPost. “This is because our brains expect never, where and what we are going to perceive that we will behave in the best case. The study shows that people who play action video games have better prediction skills never they will have to wait to see something concrete.”

“What was most surprising was that the oculomotor reflex of action video game players appeared faster than non-video game players when anticipating the onset of a light,” he added. “This oculomotor reflex, which reflects the stability of your gaze, is completely automatic and non-conscious.”

The study sheds important light on specific neurocognitive skills acquired through video games. The study authors note, however, that the design of this study does not allow for strong causal inferences to be made about the game’s effect on temporal cognition. Specifically, future research should also examine the possible influence of prior VR experience on outcomes.

“Knowing how playing video games leads to improved time expectations is essential,” Foerster said. “Are there specific games that cause this improvement? How long do we have to play to get the beneficial effect? These questions are critical, as play-based interventions could help patients with time disorders, as encountered in multiple psychiatric populations.”

The study, “Neurocognitive analyzes reveal that video game players exhibit enhanced implicit temporal processing,” was authored by Francois R. Foerster, Matthieu Chidharom, Anne Bonnefond, and Anne Giersch.

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