Differing video game structural characteristics prime different speed/accuracy tradeoffs (Nelson & Strachan, 2009)

I'm not getting much sleep as Harumi Kiyama (A Certain Scientific Railgun)

I’m not getting a lot of free time from my part-time turned full-time job. Piles of unopened google alerts awaits me, news on video game research are cropping up, and unpaid bills. Besides that, my dad has given me a catch-22 about financing my graduate studies. He wouldn’t support me nor send a bank statement, if I’m not offered admission and I wouldn’t get my visa if I don’t send them my financial statements (that’s for three schools). I want a break…

A study from the journal Perception was reported from Newswise (and later reported by gamepolitics and again) about how different types of video games can prime different cognitive strategies that affect performance in certain perceptual and cognitive tasks.


To understand the way in which video-game play affects subsequent perception and cognitive strategy, two experiments were performed in which participants played either a fast- action game or a puzzle-solving game. Before and after video-game play, participants performed a task in which both speed and accuracy were emphasized. In experiment 1 participants  engaged in a location task in which they clicked a mouse on the spot where a target had appeared, and in experiment 2 they were asked to judge which of four shapes was most similar to a target shape. In both experiments, participants were much faster but less accurate after playing the action game, while they were slower but more accurate after playing the puzzle game. Results are discussed in terms of a taxonomy of video games by their cognitive and perceptual demands.

I’m feeling mushy recently, like I’m having comprehension difficulties in conversation and reading. I hope it’s the sleep deprivation.

Nelson and Strachan argued against a generalization of perceptual and cognitive research based from a single video game genre (i.e. first-person shooters). From the readers’ perspective, it is a valid argument to state this fact since not all have some contact or experience with video games and its various genres. From the researchers’ perspective, I believe they know that different video game genres would demand different cognitive skills. It’s just that the first-person shooters or games like Tetris are games that perceptual researchers can easily use and relate to their research. And there are few researchers in the field that investigate video games’ effects. Well that’s my view anyway…

The authors argue that the skills required in a video game or in a genre (e.g. first-person shooters) would prime different cognitive skills. In this study, speed and accuracy would be its focus. It is hypothesized that games requiring speed in lieu of accuracy (or vice versa) would prime individuals to continue to do so in other similar tasks.

Study 1 (speed and accuracy in a location task)


Participants: 20 students, average is 21.8 ranging from 18 to 23. Their participation gets a 10$ gift certificate at the bookstore. Twenty participants may be too small for a social psychology study, but it’s alright for perceptual research. I just don’t get them.

Video games used: Unreal Tournament for its face-pace action and Portal for its slow-pace and focus on problem solving. This is a very good selection since they can clearly find that skills needed in a particular game and not the structural characteristics of a genre (e.g. real time or turn based strategy games) would prime different effects on certain perceptual and cognitive tasks. So, I could say that if there’s a fast-paced RTS game, it would have shared some effects as you would play from a typical FPS game.

Background questionnaire: questions on their video game experience, such as familiarity with FPS games and frequency of play and such.


This experiment is a simple visual-motor task. The participant go through a pretest to gauge their baseline performance. The participant is first tasked to click a cross in the middle of a computer screen. The cross serves as the starting point and disappears after clicking on it. After 1.5 seconds, a box with an x inside appears somewhere on the screen for a 200 ms. Then, the participants “must click QUICKLY and ACCURATELY at the center of the spot where the box was”. After that the center cross appears to repeat the task. This is what they call a trial. Participants go through 5 practice trials for familiarization.

There are 20 random locations for which the box would appear. I gather different locations may generate different results, for example a box appearing close to the center would result in very fast response and accurate results than a box at the edge of the screen. Hence, the need to control this factor.

After practice, participants go through 5 blocks of 20 trials. Totaling to 100 trials.

After the pretest blocks, participants are randomly assigned to play either Unreal Tournament ( n = 10) or Portal (n = 10) for 4 15-minute sessions. They were given 5 minutes practice/tutorial. Their gaming performance were recorded, for UT at which difficulty level they’ve achieved and, for Portal at what level they completed. There were no video game experience differences. The action group averaged to finish on experienced difficulty level, whereas the puzzle group finished on average to level 11.

After playing, they undergo the same visual-motor tasks. Again, 5 blocks of 20 trials.


Analysis done through 2 X 2 mixed ANOVA. task epochs as the within-subject factor and games as the between-subject factor. Pre-test scores showed that the groups were not significantly different in terms of speed and accuracy.

Post-test scores showed significant differences from pretest scores in that those who played the action game (UT) (average reaction time (RT) is 600ms) were faster than those played the puzzle game (Portal) (avg. RT is 1050 ms). In fact, the puzzle game group were slower than their pretest task. In terms of accuracy, which is measured by the distance from the target box by pixels, the puzzle game group were on average 20 pixels off from target whereas the action game group were on average 45 pixels off from target. Now I’d like to show you a scatterplot showing the groups’ responses, but the publisher wouldn’t like that.

The study is not convincing enough, since it only demonstrate an effect on the motor-visual abilities and we can’t really generalize to other cognitive abilities since the task and the games mainly involve moving the mouse. So, they went on to a second experiment that’s much harder than the first study.

Study 2 (matching-figure task)

Participants: 20 students, average age is 20.7 years. These participants are not the same ones from the first study. They do get the same compensation, however.

Video games used: same as earlier.

Procedure: Same as earlier, except with a different task. The task is based on the Matching Familiar Figures task by Jerome Kagan. Participants are shown a figure and they must find its matching figure from a set of four as “QUICKLY and ACCURATELY” as possible. Instead of using a mouse, they are given a box with four buttons to push on. There are 20 sets of figures, with 4 different positions which makes up to 80 different trials.


Unsurprisingly, 68 trials were discarded because the reaction time was longer than 5 seconds. Hence, the difficulty difference between the first and second study.

Using the same analysis method as the first study.

Reaction time results showed significant interaction effects, the action group (m = 1500ms) were faster than their pretest scores (m = 2500 ms) and the puzzle group (pretest m = 1500ms, posttest m = 2000ms).

Accuracy results, determined by choosing the correct figure, resulted in significant interaction effects in that the puzzle group were more accurate (pretest m = 65%, posttest m = 85%) than the action group (pretest m = 75%, posttest m = 55%).

Participants’ gaming performance were similar to the first study.


a possible project for multiple object tracking

I started writing this post the day before I started my crazy job and therefore most of my thoughts about this study were lost. I couldn’t even understand the notes I wrote back then. I’d like some more time to think over it, but I can’t.

Some take home message from the authors: don’t generalize video games effects on cognition from a single video game genre, different genres prime  different cognitive strategies or abilities, cognitive research should investigate what kind of cognitive demands a game requires of players, such as speed, accuracy, target discrimination, multiple object tracking, visual search, divided attention, change detection, spatial navigation in 2D or 3D to list a few.

The authors then went to relate this study to everyday life, which probably attracted the media’s attention. For example, how students who just played an action video game might finish their homework quickly, but poorly or become less patient (perhaps bored) in classrooms and faster with their interactions with people. But these are just informed speculations needing further investigation. We don’t know about the short  and long-term priming effects.

On an extreme note, I remembered a Terra Nova post about how people who were intensely immersed in their video game, say Katamari Damacy, were still in their gaming mode while doing some real life stuff, like trying to drive their car into a mailbox because they thought they could pick it up with their katamari.

Nelson, R. A., & Strachan, I. (2009). Action and puzzle video game prime different speed/accuracy tradoffs. Perception, 38, 1678-1687.


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