Wednesday, October 17, 2007

Playing Action Video Game Reduces Gender Differences in Spatial Cognition

Apparently first person shooter games are not all bad. Among young women who are not players of those types of video games, ten hours of playing them for an hour or two a day over a one month period increased spatial cognition. What's more, the gain persisted for at least five months.

Spatial cognition is often measured by performance on tests of mental rotation, pictured below. You've got to decide which of the 3 comparison shapes on the right matches the standard shape on the left. (If you want the correct answers, leave a comment.)

The research used this type of problem to test spatial cognition.

Performance on such tests is associated with skill in math, science, and engineering - and - also gender. In fact, spatial intelligence is one of the last areas of marked gender differences. Boys routinely out-perform girls on these tasks. But why?

It has been assumed that there is an underlying genetic difference between males and females in spatial ability. Some evolutionary psychologists even assert that man the hunter would have been more successful in the hunt with better spatial cognition, thus the evolved gender difference. Maybe so, but it is also possible that spatial skills are achieved through practice. Boys are often steered to the kinds of tasks that promote spatial skills.

First person shooter game play increases mental rotation skill, the authors think, by encouraging spatial attention. Spatial attention refers to paying attention to quick and often subtle changes in one's field of view. First person shooter games require the player to visually scan and quickly spot moving targets on screen to shoot them. That this activity resembles hunting does not escape my evolutionary mind...

But back to the real story.

This skill can be practiced and we've got a specific activity that can help girls achieve gains in spatial cognition. What's disappointing is that even with the 10 hours practice, women in the study still lagged behind men. I imagine that all it takes is more practice. I would just be great if girls didn't have to play shooter/hunting games to achieve spatial performance on par with boys.

I am sure there are other tasks that would achieve the same effect, without the violence. Although I am not technically in a STEM field (science, technology, engineering, math), I do perform better than the average male on mental rotation tasks and better even than one super above-average male - he he - you know who you are Mr. Field Notes ;-) you kick my butt at Super Scrabble all the time so I get to lord this one over you! When I read about studies like this, I wonder how my developmental experience can shed any light on what it takes to get girls interested in STEM fields and excel in them. I don't know what the answer is, but I can tell you that I did play video games, including first person shooter games.


Alasdair said...

Maybe girls have to play catch-up because boys are encouraged to play hunter-type games of all sorts, including the imaginary wars in the back yard, from an early age. Besides which, hitting your friend in stride with a football takes some skill, too, and girls aren't usually encouraged to make that a high priority. Just a thought.

Field Notes said...

I can't imagine those backyard games translate to spatial skills. But maybe, I mean, I played them after all.

Isn't throwing a hand-eye coordination thing? Maybe throwing a long way involves some spatial skill. I would believe that.

Really, I don't think hunting is the only thing that will enhance spatial cognition.

I've got to let this percolate a little longer before I come up with another non-hunting activity that would increase spatial cognition :-)

Devil's Paradise said...

I got A for the first one and B for the second. I play a lot of video games, including first person shooters, so I'm curious as to how I did. I'd love to take an entire test made of of these sorts of questions. Do you know of one?

(ps. I'm not stalking your blog, you just post the most interesting stuff!)

Field Notes said...

Devil'sP: stalk away :-)
You got the answers right on.

Alasdair is also looking for an online test of these types of puzzles.

I'd google "online mental rotation test" and see what you come up with.