Differences in cognitive performance with problematic videogame use (Collins & Freeman, 2014)

Emily Collins (University College London) and Jonathan Freeman (University of London) have published an article in Cyberpsychology, Behavior, and Social Networking regarding differences in cognitive performance amongst gamers with or without problematic videogame use.

Abstract

Action video game players have been found to outperform nonplayers on a variety of cognitive tasks. However, several failures to replicate these video game player advantages have indicated that this relationship may not be straightforward. Moreover, despite the discovery that problematic video game players do not appear to demonstrate the same superior performance as nonproblematic video game players in relation to multiple object tracking paradigms, this has not been investigated for other tasks. Consequently, this study compared gamers and nongamers in task switching ability, visual short-term memory, mental rotation, enumeration, and flanker interference, as well as investigated the influence of self-reported problematic video game use. A total of 66 participants completed the experiment, 26 of whom played action video games, including 20 problematic players. The results revealed no significant effect of playing action video games, nor any influence of problematic video game play. This indicates that the previously reported cognitive advantages in video game players may be restricted to specific task features or samples. Furthermore, problematic video game play may not have a detrimental effect on cognitive performance, although this is difficult to ascertain considering the lack of video game player advantage. More research is therefore sorely needed.

Just finished one of my candidacy exam questions, two more to go.

The research about videogames’ benefits on cognitive performance has been well received and garnered media attention. Recently, however, researchers noticed that these benefits may be overstated as they examined the methods and these benefits found in those studies may be an experimental artifact. In essence, it’s like you’re very good at throwing objects because you practiced dart throwing a lot, but the objects you threw were similarly shaped like darts and not a crumbled piece of paper. This would question the general validity of their claims.

The authors noted that researchers found that those who spend playing videogames problematically like binging way too much on or showing signs of addiction, do not display any cognitive benefits than non-players or showed differences in cognitive performance from other players. The explanation from these studies suggest that playing videogames in an addictive manner hinders the acquisition of such benefits. Thus, the authors examined whether the presence of problematic gaming affect cognitive performance.

Method

Participants: 66 participants, most of them were undergraduate students. 51 men and 15 women, average age is 22.61 (SD=4.48). They recruited 46 gamers who played on average 7 hours per week, they also recruited 20 non-gamers. Gender proportion between gamers and non-gamers were noted in that 10 of non-gamers were women. Among the gamers, they classified 20 as problematic and 26 as non-problematic.

Measures

They had the participants go through a series of cognitive tests in random order.

Enumeration paradigm: Participants looked a screen which showed a random number of white dots, from 1 to 9. Participants respond how many dots they saw. They get to practice for 32 trials and then 160 test trials.

Mental rotation task: two identical 3D objects were shown, the second object was either rotated or a mirror image. Participants responded whether the second object was rotated or mirror image. They practised for 10 trials and then 128 test trials.

Task switching: Participants responded to a shown number, but the responses differ depending on the screen’s colour background. For one colour background, they had to respond whether the number is even or odd and for the other colour background, they had to respond whether the number is higher or lower than 5. They practised for 90 trials and then 160 test trials.

Visual shot term memory: Participants responded whether the object they currently see appeared previously. They practised for 12 trials and then 204 text trials.

Flanker compatibility task: Participants responded which direction the centre arrow is pointing at, while ignoring the other arrows. They practised for 20 trials and then 100 trials.

These task are quickly understood, don’t need to think a lot, quick to respond and also easy to make mistakes if you’re not paying attention.

Videogame Addiction: The authors used the short-version of the Game Addiction scale, a 7-item answered on a 5-point frequency scale. An example item is “Have you felt bad when you were unable to play?”. The original scale was developed for adolescents, but reading over the items and they are applicable for young adults as well. Classification for problematic is when they answered in the affirmative to 4 or more items. A word of caution is that this is not clinical diagnosis.

Results

They conducted ANOVAs to compare the non-gamer, non-problematic gamer and problematic gamer groups. To put it succinctly, there was not much statistical differences in cognitive performance between the groups. They found a statistical significance in the mental rotations task in that problematic gamers showed faster reaction times for first, sixth and seventh objects compared to the non-gamers.

They redid the analysis by comparing the non-gamers and gamers and found nothing, just a shrug from the statistical program saying (and translated to) “it’s inconclusive”.

Discussion

The take home message is that players with or without problematic issues about their gaming habits do not differ on their cognitive performance. Furthermore, their performance did not seem to differ from non-gamers. This finding raised the question whether videogames do have cognitive benefits or not. An implication is that cognitive videogames researchers have to work out the methodological bugs that gave them the false positives in the first place given that the authors could not replicate earlier findings.

There are some limitations in the current study. First, the authors’ classification of the problematic gamers was noted that they played statistically the same amount of time as the non-problematic gamers, although the use of time spent playing as an indicator of problematic gaming by itself is crude and should be supplemented with other measures. Hence, it’s not a big issue that would muddy the results. The sample size may be too small, 66 participants or roughly 20 participants per groups sounds kind of small, but I checked other similar studies and they had around those numbers. A larger sample size might give more accurate results and perhaps support the idea that problematic gaming can hinder videogames’ cognitive benefits. They could try to increase the sample size, but it’s quite difficult to pull it off and they would have spend much longer recruiting participants.

References

Collins, E., & Freeman, J. (2014). Video game use and cognitive performance: Does it vary with the presence of problematic video game use? Cyberpsychology, Behavior, and Social Networking, 17 (3), 153-159. DOI: 10.1089/cyber.2012.0629

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