Back in the day when jocks were jocks and geeks were geeks, you could tell who spent their evenings plugged into video games by who tucked their shirts into their underwear. But in 2016, video games are everywhere; hell, one of the most successful games in recent memory comes from Kim Kardashian. But as any True Nerd will tell you, mindless mobile apps are not True Games: you need to kill monsters (or humans, gasp!) or drive real fast in order to be True Gamer. In a new small study, it looks like people who are True Gamers — or who are training to become True Gamers — are better at driving, thanks to the visuomotor training offered by continuous, badass game play.
Published in Psychological Science this month, a research team lead by University of Hong Kong psychologist Li Li ran a number of experiments to see the effects that video-game playing had on the subtle, crucial task of driving (in a simulation). It’s the latest in a growing body of research on how video games train people’s perception — previous studies suggest that gaming improves your ability to visually search for things, your reaction time, and in the 1980s, researchers were making elderly people play games and finding out that it helped their hand-eye coordination. What’s novel about this study is that it looks at how gaming — depending on the genre — translates to a real-life visual-motor task, driving.
In the first experiment, Li, who runs Hong Kong University’s Perception and Action Lab, and her colleagues recruited 12 action gamers (defined as guys who self-reported playing action video games like Grand Theft Auto, Call of Duty, Counter-Strike and their kin for a minimum five hours a week over the last six months) and twelve non-action gamers to sit in a lightproof booth and steer a virtual vehicle down a straight lane at a speed of 33 miles per hour using a steering wheel. As expected, action gamers drove more accurately than the others. In a second experiment, action and non-action gamers were asked to use a high precision joystick to move a red dot from left to right across a black screen in as horizontal of a line as possible. Again, the action gamers were more precise in their movements.
In another experiment, 16 novice gamers were split into two groups: an action group, which was trained to play Unreal Tournament 2004, a highly violent first-person shooter (FPS), and a control group, which was taught to play the life-simulation and strategy game Sims 2. After ten hours of play, both groups dramatically increased their scores on the games, but only the action group showed improvements in hand-eye coordination. “FPS video games require players to constantly make predictions about both where and when bullets will most likely hit,” the authors write, so that’s why training people in them improves their visuomotor control. The findings are strong enough, the authors conclude, to support “the claim that easily accessible action video games can be cost-effective training tools to help people improve their essential visuomotor-control skills used for driving,” though it would be nice if they put people behind the wheel of an actual, real-life automobile rather than a simulation to make that claim (after all, not even the best simulation can perfectly replicate the felt experience of being inside an object). But the takeaway still stands: If your little cousin fails their driver’s license exam, park them in front of Counter-Strike for a week. They’re bound to get better.