The Psychology of Video Games: It's a Spatial Thing

Memory is a funny thing; despite a tremendous amount of research undertaken by some of the most intelligent minds of the past century, how human memory works at its most basic level is still not something that the learned communities who make memory part of their concern can completely agree upon. When we examine all of the experiments, the research, the theories, and the speculation that exist in the academic community, it turns out that while science can explain with absolute certainty how computers remember data, how the human brain fully accomplishes that process remains something of a mystery.

Fear and pride are both emotions that have tremendous impact upon our memory, and it has often been noted by experts who study the brain that those two emotions are a more effective trigger for recording memory than the intentional process of repetition -- what is called "rote learning" -- or the widely accepted theory that note-taking is the best method for intentionally recording facts or events into memory.

The vast majority of humans think in words, while a small percentage of the population thinks in pictures. I happen to be a member of that much smaller percentage, so when I remember an event I actually see that event in my mind; a memory of a person is a mental picture of that person, and when I think of a song I hear that song in my head. I should probably be more disturbed by that fact than I am, because after all, one of the core signs in diagnosing autism is that the person being examined thinks in pictures, but far from being a handicap, the ability to visualize ideas has been a significant advantage to me since my earliest memories, one of which relates to video games.

It turns out that spending time as Nico Bellic just might be good for you!

In that memory I am sitting on the floor in the living room of our house in Byron Bay and my mother is there with the group of women who were part of the small social group that gathered together every Wednesday afternoon, ostensibly to play the card games bridge or whist, but in actuality to chat, to gossip, and otherwise break up the monotony of life as a housewife and mother.

I am sitting on the floor with the controller in my hand playing Pong with my brother, and one of the women commented on the video game wondering if it was a healthy thing for children to be exposed to. Video games were still a very new technology at the time -- it was 1974 after all -- and Pong was the first video game that you could play at home.

What I remember is that my mother sounded very proud of me. She told her mates that I was very good at the game, that I had incredible hand-eye coordination, and that nobody I had ever played could beat me at Pong. Considering what a handful I was as a child, I do not recall very many instances where my mother was proud of me to the point that she actually bragged to her mates about me, so the memory is firmly fixed in my mind as a result, and I suspect it may be one of the motivating factors behind my unwillingness to give up on a game before I have mastered it to this day...

Cognitively Speaking

According to Erin Kotecki Vest in her blog post The Psychology of Gaming: What does the evidence really tell us? (1) "video games can be considered one of our 'informal learning environments' because they inadvertently produce learners who possess a variety of psychomotor and cognitive abilities" -- and in addition she adds that "leisurely gaming is the development and sharpening of visual-spatial skills, including iconic representation and spatial visualization."

That nicely explains my mother's connection of my hand-eye coordination and video games, doesn't it? If you are wondering who Erin Kotecki Vest is -- and how valuable that opinion might be -- she is a print and broadcast journalist and regular contributor to the Huffington Post known for her political commentary and blogging, but perhaps of more significant note, she is a very intelligent woman who tends to speak on subjects she has studied extensively. Not good enough?

Games like Heavy Rain provide the right POV and the right challenges, giving the gamer a lot to take in and encouraging problem solving and memory.

According to Dr. Lise Eliot, professor of neuroscience at the Rosalind Franklin University of Medicine and Science in Chicago, and author of the book Pink Brain Blue Brain, playing video games can have a positive impact in child development and help strengthen spatial skills. The point that Eliot makes in her book is not that video games are an ideal learning system or that parents should plug their kids into them on a daily basis, but that there is solid evidence to support the idea that they help children in the process of developing both spatially and becoming three-dimensionally aware at a faster pace.

The book was not written about the effect of video games on children, it is an examination of the effects of gender-specific treatment of children by both their parents and society, and it deals with a lot of these expectations while critically examining and dissecting hundreds of scientific papers, nicely debunking the misleading "facts" that are often culled from those papers in order to prove the adage "Figures Lie and Liars Figure" (3) while illustrating the unfortunate habit for writers to seize upon "facts" that support the idea they are projecting.

While researching her book Dr. Eliot discovered that spatial skill development is notably more challenging for young girls than it is for young boys, making a connection between specific environmental and recreational differences between the sexes. The value of learning through play is a well-established factor in the basic stages of development in the early years, and the four distinct stages of development in children's spatial thinking are improved and accelerated through the process of instruction (4) that is an integral mechanism in video games.

Children develop spatial skills through play, and as boys tend to be more attracted to the kinds of toys that focus on spatial development more so than girls, encouraging your daughters to play with video games and LEGO toys turns out to be a very good idea.

Posted: 17th Aug 2011 by CMBF
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