Video Games Make You Impulsive

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New research shows that playing ‘Halo’ or ‘Call of Duty‘ every night can improve your visual attention skills. Yet at the same time, these games, which require players to react quickly, also hinder impulse control and can lead to aggressive behavior.

We’ve heard for a while that fast-paced, usually violent games can desensitize people and make them more prone to aggression. While three new studies don’t give a final, satisfying proof of this, what they have found is that these games inhibit something called proactive cognitive control, the ability to keep information active in the short-term memory long enough to use it for later decisions. In short, video games can make us act more impulsively.

Whether it’s violence specifically or just the high-octane nature of these games that makes players more impulsive is still up in the air. “We need additional research to tease out whether the violence aspect is necessary to get the harmful effect,” says lead researcher Craig Anderson, director of the Center for the Study of Violence at Iowa State University. “Any fast-paced game that requires immediate reactions would probably produce similar effects,” he says. “The problem is it’s hard to find games that have all of these characteristics but no violence.”

These studies also found that all the rapid-fire decision-making makes players more visually perceptive and attentive, but there is no proof enhanced visuospatial skills translate to real life. “Just because you get better at a video game doesn’t mean you’re going to become a more focused reader or pay more attention to things you’d otherwise find boring,” says Anderson.

At the end of the day, Anderson’s research shows that “a given video game is neither all good nor all bad, neither totally harmless nor totally harmful,” he says. “There are so many mental processes at work when you play these games.”