Dr. Manhattan points to a New York Times article reporting on a study by Green and Bravelier just published in Nature showing that practicing your mass-murder skills in shoot-’em-up videogames has large and lasting benefits in improving visual attention.
He notes that the research found a gender gap: very few women play “first-person shooter games,” while other videogames seem not to have comparable benefits. He doesn’t ask — though it appears that the researchers are asking — the question whether drilling in any activity other than vicarious competitive homicide might have comparable benefits.
I’m more willing than Dr. Manhattan seems to be to take the design question seriously: Would it be possible to develop games that (1) appeal to females as well as males; (2) develop visual attention skills; and (3) aren’t mostly about blowing people away?
One obvious option would be to make the threats come from non-humans and make the weapons less like those actually used by contemporary human beings to kill large numbers of other human beings: it probably requires as much attention to kill imaginary velociraptors with imaginary rocks or broadswords or magic wands as it does to kill imaginary bad guys with an imaginary Uzi. (Or how about some more visually demanding version of the old “Space Invaders”-style games?) Even if it turns out that imagined danger is necessary to focus attention, it might not be the case that the imagined danger has to be danger from hypothetical physical violence as opposed to some other game-losing event, or that the activity requiring rapid response has to be killing rather than something else. According to Nature Science Update, driving games, for example, have benefits comparable to first-person shooter games.
The finding that commercial outfits have developed games that some kids are more than willing to play that also seem to have important cognitive benefits is really a very exciting one. But it doesn’t imply that the games that have actually been developed, or will be developed commercially in the future, are the games we want kids to be playing. Obviously, it doesn’t do much good to develop games teaching useful things cognitively and morally that kids won’t play, but that it might still be worth investing public or nonprofit money in developing games that kids, including girls, would play and that have some of the same benefits.
[Confession of conflict of interest: I’d like to improve my visual attention, I’m a computer game addict, and I’m profoundly bored by first-person shooter games.]