Does playing video games make you smarter?

by on March 3, 2015 at 12:56 am in Education, Games | Permalink

It’s in an economics journal, so it must be true.   Agne Suziedelyte reports, from Economic Inquiry:

According to the literature, video game playing can improve such cognitive skills as problem solving, abstract reasoning, and spatial logic. I test this hypothesis using the data from the Child Development Supplement to the Panel Study of Income Dynamics. The endogeneity of video game playing is addressed by using panel data methods and controlling for an extensive list of child and family characteristics. To address the measurement error in video game playing, I instrument children’s weekday time use with their weekend time use. After taking into account the endogeneity and measurement error, video game playing is found to positively affect children’s problem solving ability. The effect of video game playing on problem solving ability is comparable to the effect of educational activities. (JEL I2, J13, J24)

I wonder how much endogeneity can be overcome in such settings, but if nothing else there is positive selection into video games and perhaps you should not be upset if your child is playing them.

Do any of you see an ungated copy?  The pointer here is from Kevin Lewis.

1 Scott Mauldin March 3, 2015 at 1:28 am

I would have to look at the full article to see the details, but I’m particularly curious about two things:
1) effects on different ages and whether there are any significant effects on teenagers or adults (I believe most of those brain training games were shown to be bunk a while ago, with the exception of “double n-back” games), and

2) the effect of different types of games. Chess-playing is correlated with increased higher reasoning and logical thought; do strategy video games have similar effects, vis-a-vis first person shooters? Do RPGs with complex moral choices lead to different cognitive outcomes versus a control group? These things seem intuitively true but I wonder if there’s much statistical support.

2 Thor March 3, 2015 at 12:59 pm

Should I shoot the fat man with an RPG, or should I flick the trolley track switch?

3 zbicyclist March 3, 2015 at 2:52 pm

I wonder what video games displace? If they displace the utter passivity of watching TV sitcom reruns, I’d believe it.

4 Philemon March 3, 2015 at 2:09 am

From the conclusion:

“…the presented results show that there is a plausibly causal relationship between video game playing and children’s ability to solve practical mathematics problems. Because video game playing does not directly improve mathematics knowledge, this finding can be explained by a positive effect of video game playing on children’s problem solving ability, a skill that is useful in many life and work situations. The positive effect of video game playing on problem solving ability decreases with the number of hours played and is larger in families that invest more goods and time resources in children. The latter result
suggests complementarity between video games and other investments. I also find suggestive evidence that certain types of video games may have larger effects on cognitive skill development than others. This analysis could be extended by investigating this question further…

…The magnitude of the estimated effect of video game playing on problem solving ability varies across different models, from 1% of a standard deviation in the VA model to 9.3% of a standard deviation in the child FE-IV model. In most of the estimated models, the effect of video game playing is found to be comparable to the effect of educational activities, suggesting that some video games may have as much potential to improve children’s problem solving skills as
more traditional educational tools. Irrespective of the preferred identification strategy and model specification, video game playing is never found to negatively affect children’s problem solving skills. In the case of reading skills, however, it
matters what activities are being displaced by video game playing. If children played video games instead of studying or reading, their reading ability would be negatively affected. On the other hand, substituting television watching with
video game playing would not affect children’s reading ability.”

5 JWatts March 3, 2015 at 4:58 pm

“I also find suggestive evidence that certain types of video games may have larger effects on cognitive skill development than others. ”

It’s good that there’s evidence, but it’s fairly obvious that a complex strategy title is going to have a larger effect than a relatively mindless 2-D shooter. I hope they quantified the differences by type.

6 Thomas March 4, 2015 at 1:49 am

Some of the most challenging games I’ve ever played were 2-D shooters.

7 jb March 3, 2015 at 4:18 am

Virtual Reality Exposure Therapy for PTSD is real.

8 Ray Lopez March 3, 2015 at 6:25 am

Is this not an old finding, at least a couple of years old?

Also, if your base is low enough, nearly anything can make you smarter, including taking a multivitamin pill every day.

9 blackie March 3, 2015 at 9:19 am

So when are you going to start taking vitamins ?

10 Doug March 3, 2015 at 2:28 pm

One irony is that intelligent people appear much more interested in nootropics and ways to raise their intelligence. Yet the sizable bulk of these methods are far more effective on the low IQ. Modafinil is particularly pronounced. It may raise IQ from 80 to 100, but has basically no (cognitive) effect on someone with an IQ of 120. The stupid may simply have brains that are permantely sleep-deprived.

11 Bblase March 3, 2015 at 8:42 am

There was a study a while back wherein two groups learned to play sports: one via video games and the other by actually practicing the sport. The former outperformed the latter in actual play after each had a couple weeks to practice. The video game group better understood the strategy involved demonstrated that brains can beat brawn in some settings.

12 Devin March 3, 2015 at 9:03 am

I have been playing video games for over 20. Although I would not attest to being smarter, I would say my reflexes are sharper due to video games. I would attribute this to first person shooters and action adventure games.

13 Scoop March 3, 2015 at 10:02 am

Are you asserting that your reflexes are faster now than they were when you began playing or faster than what they would be now if you did not play?

The second is the only assertion that says anything meaningful about video game play and it’s an impossible one to make unless you are able to compare your reflexes to those of your non-gaming clone. (You might “feel” it very strongly without it being true. I feel that I get more parking spots when I avoid several behaviors that jinx me.)

I’d agree with Tyler’s assertion that these uncontrolled studies probably prove there’s no strong negative effect. Population differences are rarely enough to hide disastrous impact. (i.e. Smoking studies proved it to be unhealthy even though non-smokers were clearly more health conscious in general than smokers.)

We won’t know the real impact of gaming until there’s a large randomized trial (at least 10k) over a 10-year period with a non-gaming control arm and several gaming arms that play different types of games on different schedules.

14 Devin March 3, 2015 at 10:23 am

Another dilettante falls for the bait.

15 Scoop March 4, 2015 at 11:06 am

Another guy deludes himself about the true signal readers get when comment writers claim to know too much about a subject to waste their time with actual arguments.

If you think there’s some way you can really know that video games have improved your reflexes over a 20-year-period, enlighten me so I can can avoid the same mistake in future.

Otherwise, avoid the meaningless snit. I wasn’t attacking you personally. I acknowledged that all humans share your tendency to believe utterly unprovable things.

16 JWatts March 3, 2015 at 5:08 pm

” In total, 2,394 families were interviewed(88% of the selected families) and data on 3,563 children were collected. These children and their families were re-interviewed in 2002 (2,907 children) when children were 5–17 years old and in 2007 (1,506 children) when children were 10–18 years old.”

That’s a reasonably large sample size and period.

17 Scoop March 4, 2015 at 10:56 am

Big sample, but paper records provide only weak controls for differences between the kids.

How, for example, would it control for this: Kids with naturally quick reflexes and fine motor skills do better at video games than kids with slow reflexes and poor fine motor skills. This leads the first type of kids to play video games and the second group to abandon them or play them far less, leading to the observed results but reversing the cause.

18 Clover 2 March 3, 2015 at 9:21 am
19 Mark March 3, 2015 at 9:44 am

Not ungated. Shows the first page unless your IP address shows you at a subscribing university.

20 Clover 2 March 3, 2015 at 10:07 am
21 Jeff March 3, 2015 at 9:37 am

Can confirm. I play video games and am smarter than Ray Lopez.

22 Granite26 March 3, 2015 at 12:40 pm

You almost have to ask ‘compared to what’…

Like that old finding that public TV made kids smarter, but only for kids whose parents weren’t teaching them to read themselves.

If your kid is playing MineCraft instead of watching Power Rangers, sure, it’s better. If it’s GTA vs. a book or playing outside, not so much.

This follows @Philemon’s statement about more time and money being spent on kids. If you’re letting them play a curated set of games as part of their at home curriculum, yay. If you’re getting them the latest FPS slaughterfest and using that as a babysitter? Not so much.

23 Wimivo March 3, 2015 at 1:52 pm

My Steven Pinker alarm is going off — childhood effects usually do not last into adulthood or even teens. Generalize at your own peril!

24 Oskar Sigvardsson March 3, 2015 at 2:27 pm

I know, “anecdote is not data” and all, but I would personally say that video games probably have made me smarter. Strategy games work similar muscles as something like chess but with added time constraints and requirements for reaction times. Puzzle games should work just as well or better than something like sudoku. Shooters may seem dumb, but in order to play them well, you have to not just have extremely good reflexes and very good hand-eye coordination, but also a very quick instinctual sense of what’s happening around you and what is going to happen next.

As an example, if you’re looking into a building and see someone run past a window, you have figure out whether or not that person is going to come back to the window or head out through a door. If you make the wrong choice, he’s going to have the drop on you, but if you make right choice, it’s almost a guaranteed kill. It might not seem like the most intellectually challenging exercise in the world, but when you have to do it constantly in fractions of a second at the same time as you are controlling your character, it’s not easiest thing the world. It certainly feels like like a work-out for your brain.

As I said, I have no data to support it and I’m obviously biased (given my love for video games), but I don’t find studies like these surprising in the least.

25 meets March 3, 2015 at 3:17 pm

I work faster than coworkers.

I attribute this to video games

26 Doug M March 3, 2015 at 6:15 pm

My first question is does this investigator address the post hoc ergo propter hoc fallacy?

If we look at kids who are already gamers and say that they have superior X, Y or Z skills, might it not be that kids with X, Y and Z aptitudes are drawn to these games? And who knows what their skills might be with different stimulation.

27 JWatts March 3, 2015 at 6:45 pm

From reading the abstract, yes they address it, but only in the sense of acknowledging it could be the explanation.

It’s not clear how you could address it without some massive study where you have 1,000’s of participants who are randomly selected play video games and 1,000’s of others who are banned from playing video games. How could you set that up? Possibly with payments, but there would almost certainly be some of the “banned” group who would take the money, claim they weren’t playing any games, but play them anyway.

And in the original post Tyler says: “but if nothing else there is positive selection into video games and perhaps you should not be upset if your child is playing them.”

28 Turkey Vulture March 3, 2015 at 7:17 pm

It didn’t make me any thinner.

29 Ronald Brak March 3, 2015 at 11:36 pm

I don’t know if playing computer games makes me smarter, but I do seem to enjoy working about as much as I enjoy playing computer games. However, when I play a computer game I know I won’t let anyone down, so when I’m feeling stressed I prefer to play computer games. When I’m not feeling stressed I prefer to work in the hope of gaining social recognition. And money might also be a motivator there as well.

I know my anecdote isn’t exactly on topic, but what can i say? I like the sound of my own typing.

30 Richard Besserer March 4, 2015 at 9:14 am

On the basis of a similar title and abstract, this appears to be the working paper version:

Agne Suziedelyte’s PhD is from the University of New South Wales. She’s currently a research fellow at Monash.

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