Can playing "Call of Duty 2" improve your brain power?   University of Rochester researchers say that, and other action video games, train people to make the right decisions faster.   Video games help players develop a heightened sensitivity to what is going on around them and that improves a wide variety of general skills that can help with everyday activities like driving, reading small print, keeping track of friends in a crowd, and even navigating around town.   Bring on "Halo:Reach" then!

Video games are popular - 68 percent of American households have someone playing one, according to a 2009 report by the Entertainment Software Association.  P
revious work by Daphne Bavelier and colleagues that showed that video games improve vision by making players more sensitive to slightly different shades of color so she teamed up with Alexandre Pouget and C. Shawn Green to see if video games were a subtle training regimen for speeding up reactions in many types of real-life situations.

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They tested dozens of 18- to 25-year-olds who were not ordinarily video game players. They split the subjects into two groups. One group played 50 hours of the action video games "Call of Duty 2" and "Unreal Tournament" while the other group played 50 hours of the slow-moving strategy game "The Sims 2."

After this training period, all of the subjects were asked to make quick decisions in several tasks designed by the researchers. In the tasks, the participants had to look at a screen, analyze what was going on, and answer a simple question about the action in as little time as possible (i.e. whether a clump of erratically moving dots was migrating right or left across the screen on average). In order to make sure the effect wasn't limited to just visual perception, the participants were also asked to complete an analogous task that was purely auditory.

Subject attempts to determine whether the erratically moving dots on a computer screen are moving left or right on average. This was used to determine whether playing video games makes people faster decision makers while having no detrimental effect on accuracy.  Credit: J. Adam Fenster, University of Rochester

The action game players were up to 25 percent faster at coming to a conclusion and answered just as many questions correctly as their strategy game playing peers.

"It's not the case that the action game players are trigger-happy and less accurate: They are just as accurate and also faster," Bavelier said. "Action game players make more correct decisions per unit time. If you are a surgeon or you are in the middle of a battlefield, that can make all the difference."

The authors' neural simulations shed light on why action gamers have augmented decision making capabilities. People make decisions based on probabilities that they are constantly calculating and refining in their heads, Bavelier explains. The process is called probabilistic inference. The brain continuously accumulates small pieces of visual or auditory information as a person surveys a scene, eventually gathering enough for the person to make what they perceive to be an accurate decision.

"Decisions are never black and white," she said. "The brain is always computing probabilities. As you drive, for instance, you may see a movement on your right, estimate whether you are on a collision course, and based on that probability make a binary decision: brake or don't brake."

Action video game players' brains are more efficient collectors of visual and auditory information, and therefore arrive at the necessary threshold of information they need to make a decision much faster than non gamers, the researchers found.

Citation: C. Shawn Green, Alexandre Pouget, Daphne Bavelier, 'Improved Probabilistic Inference as a General Learning Mechanism with Action Video Games', Current Biology, Volume 20, Issue 17, 1573-1579, 14 September 2010 DOI:10.1016/j.cub.2010.07.040