Want To Learn More? Take A Break And Play An Action Game

Want To Learn More? Take A Break And Play An Action Game

A recent study has added to the body of research suggesting that action games could actually help your learning ability.

Published in Communications Biology, the study specifically looks at participants’ ability to learn new tasks, dubbed “learning to learn”. It found that subjects trained on action games beforehand displayed increased cognitive ability in perception and working memory, compared to a control group that played non-action games.

According to the study:

A working memory learning task was chosen partially because such tasks are known to involve a number of core constituents of executive function, such as the maintenance of information and distraction inhibition14,15,16. Because individual differences in such functions predict a host of real-world outcomes (e.g., academic and job-related success, see refs. 17,18), and act as key behavioral markers of several psychiatric disorders19,20, methods to improve such functions may have significant translational utility.

The “learning to learn” mechanism is a wide subject of study in both the human education space and machine learning. For humans, it’d be of great interest to know if action games could provide a shortcut to this ability. Such an idea could synergise with taking strategic breaks, using rest time to prep the mind for another round of deep focus.

Participants played three separate games, with 15 hours in each. Those playing action games were assigned  Call of Duty: Black Ops 1, Call of Duty: Black Ops 2, and Half-life 2. Those in the non-action control group were assigned Sims 3, Zoo Tycoon 2013, and Viva Piñata.

Several charts display the results of the studies, as participants playing action games were shown to have increased learning ability

This study aimed to establish a causal relationship between playing action games and this “learning to learn” phenomenon. Previously, studies had identified players who preferred to play action games in their spare time as having increased levels of these learning skills. Now, causality has been established by showing that “individuals who were trained on action video games subsequently exhibited faster learning in the two cognitive domains that we tested, as compared to individuals who trained on non-action games.”

This study builds on the findings of a previous metastudy in Psychological Bulletin that suggested that action video games could enhance performance in a wide range of cognitive tasks.

Moderator analyses indicated that action video game play robustly enhances the domains of top-down attention and spatial cognition, with encouraging signs for perception.

As always, there are limitations to this kind of research. Not all games are created equal in terms of how they might help cognition, and no research program has the resources to develop triple-A games with the proper controls for studies like this. That limits researchers to a combination of what triple-A games are currently available.

This is potentially an area of opportunity for publishers, modders and researchers to work together – but that’s a topic for another time.

The recent study in Nature attempts to address some of the criticisms this line of research has received in the past. Some potential confounding factors were eliminated, such as participant or experimenter expectations, by following advice from past critiques of studies on action games. The researchers implemented:

  • Experimenter blinding
  • Participant blinding to conditions other than their own
  • Assessments of participant expectations

Expectations were “found to be unrelated to the actual learning improvements in the cognitive task used”.

The results add both content and solidity to a growing body of research that suggest action games can help people learn.


  • I’d want to see this study done on people who did not have traditional schooling of “recess” (activity) then study then “lunch + play” (Activity) then study, then after school play, then homework, creating a feedback loop in children that study always follows activity, so the above results would skew western schooling to create the ‘activity=better study’ results.

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