Video games can unlock some surprising cognitive abilities
What makes a pro gamer unique? Consider the idea of someone playing for at least 8 hours per day, every single day for weeks, months, or even years. If you are unfamiliar with an eSports player’s regime, you might want to read about it. It’s remarkable.
You might not be surprised, then, that the brain of a pro gamer is different to the rest of us. eSports have now become so prominent that there have been numerous opportunities to perform research on these players — to better understand how their brains actually work, and how these differences impact their ability to perform in games.
Let’s take a look at some of the notable examples.
Top-notch attention skills
One of the more prominent mental abilities of a pro gamer is their ability to focus. On the surface, you might not see this as a big deal — but attention is a key condition to ensure strong mental performance in other areas (such as learning, memory, planning, regulating our thoughts, and making the most of the present moment).
How this manifests for a pro gamer is an ability to efficiently select which stimuli they will focus on especially during demanding tasks. They have an ability to ignore all other distractions and focus exclusively on one single thing for a long period of time.
This ability is particularly evident in first-person shooters.
When comparing amateur to pro players using eye-tracking technology, researchers found that professional gamers had a much more focused gaze. The pro focused their eyesight to the center of the screen and was able to keep it fixed there for an extended period of time.
What about the average person, like you and me?
In our case — the amateur — the gaze is much more erratic, regularly changing its position on the screen, helplessly looking around like a poor lost sheep. Our gaze will only tend to focus during a major event (like being killed, for example). A pro player doesn’t require so much stimulation in order to fix their attention on a single point.
Here’s a visual representation to make it clearer:
Every skill group has a different gaze pattern. But there’s a clear tendency: the higher the skill set, the more focused the gaze on the screen center.
The researchers who produced the paper referenced here were tracking players’ eye movement in Counter-Strike: Global Offensive. Being a first-person shooter, pro players will tend to focus on the center of the screen. However, they may also temporarily fix their attention on other elements like the radar/map, the health and armor panel, or the weapons and ammo panel.
eSports players’ theta waves — the brain waves related to focused attention — are enhanced during virtual battles especially in action-oriented video games like Counter-Strike, Fortnite, Call of Duty, Mortal Kombat, Tekken, or Overwatch.
It might seem counter-intuitive to think of professional eSports players like athletes. They may not appear to be athletes based on their physical appearance. But don’t be fooled: these cyber athletes have a reaction time akin to fighter jet pilots. This results in a highly-advanced hand-eye coordination at remarkable speed.
One consequence of this is that pro players tend to retire at an early stage because they can’t keep up with the cognitive and motor demands of competitive gaming. In fact, a study found that we actually start to slow down at a very young age. It might surprise you, but you can probably say goodbye to competitive high-level eSports tournaments after only your 24th birthday. Yikes.
As we get older, the latency associated with hand-eye coordination increases. An increase of 150 milliseconds translates to a full 30 second delay through a 15 minute Bronze game in StarCraft 2. In other words, players experiencing this latency are actually 200 “looking cycles” behind their younger counterparts. It’s a huge disadvantage.
In a National Geographic documentary on gaming, there was special mention of the amazing skills of Korean pro gamers. For example, one of StarCraft’s tournament champions — Seo Ji-hoon — was tested to see how his skills compared to those of a regular person. This study found that Seo was able to tap a computer keyboard or mouse 370 times per minute compared to ordinary folks who land on around 100 times per minute.
That’s an enormous difference. No wonder eSports players retire in their mid-twenties.
Capacity for large cognitive overhead
When pro gamers are presented with difficult gameplay — which makes them react more slowly — their frontal brain regions (associated with complex higher-level cognitive functions like reasoning, decision making, etc…) don’t light up as much as regular gamers.
This indicates that pro players expend less cognitive effort during these moments — they don’t use as much energy, requiring less brain activity and less mental effort, to stay focused on demanding tasks.
They’re also more likely to rapidly switch between tasks (e.g. execute a sudden change of tactics or switch between controlling multiple elements simultaneously).
This combination of speed and mental efficiency is on full display when looking at players like Choi “Polt” Seong Hun, a world-class StarCraft 2 legend. ESPN’s Sport Science Lab studied him thoroughly and found some amazing insights:
- He averages 316 actions per minute in this real-time strategy game that requires a lot of fast task switching. Just to put this into perspective, this amount means that he can be 64% faster than an adult typing on a laptop.
- His prefrontal cortex is rather inactive during highly demanding tasks (like attacking an enemy on multiple fronts). This area of the brain controls our ability to focus, it anticipates events, plans future actions, and manages emotional reactions, but it’s bypassed during these high-pressure times. This reduced activity has been associated with a state of flow in professional athletes, which helps Polt focus all his attention on one task even if he’s rapidly shifting between tasks at a 125-millisecond rate (half the time it takes you to snap your fingers).
Enhanced short-term memory
Pro gamers are great at maintaining relevant visual information in their mind’s eye in the absence of external cues.
The nature of short-term memory is that it can retain a limited amount of information at any one time — this is usually approximately 7 individual “chunks” of data.
However, pro gamers are more accurate in terms of memorizing those elements and recognizing them later. Therefore, they can store information more effectively than the average person. The faster reaction time of professional players might be attributable, in part, to a more efficient use of their working memory (that is, their short-term memory). That is to say, they might hold temporary information more efficiently which translates into faster retrieval and use of it.
When people commit to video games for years and years through diligent training, their brains transform into powerful machines — we’re only just finding out how they’ve been rewired as a result. It’s truly incredible to learn what countless hours of video games can do to the human brain.
These virtual athletes have acquired some amazing skills:
- Their attention level has reached a state of pure focus without any distractions being able to penetrate this cognitive wall.
- Their reaction time only compares to the finest fighter jet pilots with speeds almost 4 times faster than an average person.
- All the pressure and task demands they have to endure have rewired their brain into using less energy to stay very effective during multiple virtual battles. They’ve achieved an excellent balance between high focus and relaxation that allows them to perform on the highest level.
- They can handle multiple bits of information at the same, which helps them change between tasks very fast, better store and retrieve information, and being more efficient when processing high amounts of information.
Although this article is specifically about professional gamers, it’s worth considering how the learnings around pro players could be applied to everyone else. Could we use video games as a form of therapy to repair damage to — or enhance — the human brain?
Cover image by Fredrick Tendong on Unsplash.
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