Can Video Games Actually Make Students Better Multitaskers?

In this article, Hampton Tutors coach and resident cognitive sciences expert Tim Barnes discusses a recent study that aimed to uncover the puzzling link between video gaming and improved multitasking skills. 


Video game nerds are having their heyday in the psychological sciences: a number of experiments have shown that playing first-person action video games significantly improves one’s ability to visually attend to multiple objects, and even to increase the number of ideas one can hold in their head at once.

Few people feel comfortable with the idea of assigning violent video games to students as homework, however, so the race is on to find out exactly what aspects of these games improve players’ executive control and multitasking ability.

One idea is that, unlike puzzle or strategy games, action video games require the ability to solve problems while constantly ‘moving’ in the game’s virtual space; Bender and colleagues created a stripped-down lab version of such a game to investigate whether cognitive training while managing constant movement would increase cognitive capacity [1].

The study

Subjects in this experiment were trained in two tasks, either simultaneously or in separate sessions. One of these tasks was to use a computer mouse to keep a cursor centered within a circle that would move on the screen like a billiard ball; this task is supposed to have continuous movement similar to an action video game. The other task was to watch the center of the screen as various shapes were presented about once per second, and to press a key when the shape matched a target shape indicated before each trial.

Sessions of these tasks were sandwiched between a series of evaluations. Each subject was given a set of cognitive tests before task training, then evaluated on how good they were at the two tasks before training. After being trained for about an hour a day for five days on the tasks, they were re-evaluated, first on their performance on the specific tasks, then on the general cognitive tests.

All the data was then grouped by whether a subject spent half an hour on the mouse-tracking task and then half an hour on the shape-matching task, or whether each training day contained one session where the two tasks were happening simultaneously. The authors also made sure afterward that one group wasn’t naturally better at any of the tasks coming into the experiment, and that one group didn’t enjoy playing the games more than the other group.

The results

In the end, the multitasking-trained group was better at moving the mouse and recognizing the shape at the same time, but they didn’t show any improvement on the general cognitive tests. To the extent that action video games really do confer multitasking skills on players, continuous engagement and movement doesn’t seem to be the key variable.

Until that key is found, tutors should continue to rely on teaching organizational skills to help students multitask and manage multiple deadlines, tasks, and priorities.

[1] Bender AD, Filmer HL, Naughtin CK, & Due, PE (2017). Dynamic, continuous multitasking training leads to task-specific improvements but does not transfer across action selection tasks. npj Science of Learning 2(1):14.

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