For better or for worse video games are very powerful conditioning systems — powerful learning and reward systems. —Wall Street Journal science writer Richard Lee Hotz
Related story: Video games, porn hook young men, with sad consequences
Michigan State psychology professor Linda Jackson freely admits she had no idea what a bombshell her findings about video games would prove to be.
Jackson is the lead researcher on a study published last year in the academic journal "Computers in Human Behavior" that shows 12-year-olds who play video games are more creative than those who don't. The research also demonstrates that a child's usage of cellphones, computers or the Internet has no statistical correlation to creativity.
Needless to say, such findings brazenly defy decades of research that suggest prolonged exposure to video games would harm children's brains. Conventional wisdom has held that a link exists between playing video games and negative traits like social isolation and violent behavior.
"The results did surprise me," Jackson said. "I expected the reverse. But of course once you get the results, then you do an after-the-fact explanation.
"And video games demand a lot of imagination, a lot of thinking about the unexpected — or being able to anticipate the less-probable response. People who can do those sorts of things tend to be more creative."
The work of Jackson and her colleagues is part of a growing body of new research that collectively calls into question the conventional wisdom that too many video games inflict significant harm on children and families.
A shifting landscape
For Wall Street Journal science writer Richard Lee Hotz, the shift in thinking on video games really took hold when he came across Jackson's research late last year. Hotz, twice a Pulitzer Prize finalist and a past president of the National Association of Science Writers, has covered science and technology at major newspapers for more than 30 years. He had grown accustomed to seeing study after study about the perils of video games — research that often involved a small number of participants or received funding from third parties looking for specific results to advance their narrative.
"Since video games were first introduced," Hotz said, "we've been inundated with research papers that have suggested strongly that these games are very bad for people. … The studies were very, very small, and involved only a handful of people.
"Recently, there's been a series of thoughtful papers by researchers who have no particular connection to the gaming interest and no particular interest in it, that has pointed out how half-baked a lot of this research has been."
For example, researchers at the University of Rochester turned conventional wisdom about video games on its head when they published a series of studies over the past five years that showed video games — and especially violent, action-based video games like "Halo" and "Call of Duty" — train a player's brain to pay attention to five or more things at once without getting confused (the average person can only be attentive to four things simultaneously).
But the Michigan State study particularly caught Hotz's eye, in large part because of its rich trove of data inextricably linking video games and creativity. Jackson and Co. harvested thousands of data points by administering two versions of the Torrance Test of Creative Thinking — one involving drawing and the other storytelling — to each of 491 pre-teens. Every test had to be assigned a score, and in order to insulate against personal subjectivity, Jackson had a panel of six undergraduate students grade each Torrance Test that a 12-year-old completed.
All that data permitted Jackson to isolate video game playing away from other similar factors such as using cellphones, the Internet or personal computers.
"Professor Jackson had in fact done a very good job of trying to tease those threads apart, and I hadn't seen that before," Hotz said. "I'm an empiricist by nature, and certainly I'm an empiricist as a journalist — I'm driven by data. And here's something that seemed solidly empirical."
In Jackson's research, children's creativity was first measured by giving them a piece of paper with only the outline of an egg-shaped object and asking them to draw a picture around and including the "egg."
Later, test subjects received an illustration of an imaginary scene and were then instructed to concoct and verbalize a narrative explaining the picture's contents.
After three years of thoroughly administering two tests apiece to almost 500 12-year-olds, Jackson's team concluded that, as measured by two Torrance Tests of Creative Thinking, children who play video games are generally more creative than those who don't.
However, the Michigan State study doesn't address the issue of causality versus correlation between playing video games and demonstrating enhanced creativity. To that end, Jackson hopes her future research uncovers whether video games enhance creativity or creative kids are just more likely to play video games — or perhaps both.
Researchers have not yet arrived at a consensus about the relative benefits and detriments of violence in video games. The Michigan State study, for instance, was unable to ferret out whether exposure to video game violence affects a child's creativity and development.
Neuroscientist Daphne Bavelier has participated in much of the Rochester research about the positive effects of adventure-based, violent games that simply cannot be replicated in strategy games like "Rise of Nations" or simpler fare like "Tetris."
On her website, Bavelier summarized findings of one of the Rochester studies that was funded by the Office of Naval Research: "The simple act of playing action video games for a mere 10 hours can enhance the ability of young adults to search their visual environment for a pre-specified target, to monitor moving objects in a complex visual scene, or to process a fast-paced stream of visual information."
Nonetheless, academic research that flies in the face of the Rochester findings is still emerging. In December, for example, the University of Indiana published a study that concluded playing violent "shooter" video games measurably decreases a player's brain activity in regions associated with cognitive flexibility and attention span. (The Indiana study was funded by the Center for Successful Parenting, an advocacy organization focused on "helping parents understand the consequences of our children viewing video games.")
Enough new research has emerged in recent years to suggest that it might be time to have a more holistic view of video games.
"For better or for worse," Hotz said, "video games are very powerful conditioning systems — powerful learning and reward systems. … This is the largest open-ended experiment in neurobiology we have ever conducted, and we're conducting it on ourselves."