Can Playing Video Games Lead to Better Sports Performance?

Over the past few years, I’ve started to notice a trend with many of the young athletes that I train.  Each one of them tends to spend a lot of their free time playing action games on their videogame consoles.  Now, I realize that their age and the popularity of recent videogames is the cause of this trend, but I’ve always wondered if the videogames might help with hand eye co-ordination or anything else that could improve their sport performance.  Until recently all I had were my theories, but now there’s some interesting research coming out of the University of Rochester. Here’s what the research had to say, according to an article from USNewswire (Sept.17th2010):

Cognitive scientists from the University of Rochester have discovered that playing action video games trains people to make the right decisions faster. The researchers found that video game players develop a heightened sensitivity to what is going on around them, and this benefit doesn’t just make them better at playing video games, but improves a wide variety of general skills that can help with everyday activities like multitasking, driving, reading small print, keeping track of friends in a crowd, and navigating around town.

In an upcoming study in the journal Current Biology, authors Daphne Bavelier, Alexandre Pouget, and C. Shawn Green report that video games could provide a potent training regimen for speeding up reactions in many types of real-life situations.

Video games have grown in popularity to the point where 68 percent of American households have members that play them, according to a 2009 report by the Entertainment Software Association.

The researchers tested dozens of 18- to 25-year-olds who were not ordinarily video game players. They split the subjects into two groups. One group played 50 hours of the fast-paced action video games “Call of Duty 2” and “Unreal Tournament,” and the other group played 50 hours of the slow-moving strategy game “The Sims 2.”

After this training period, all of the subjects were asked to make quick decisions in several tasks designed by the researchers. In the tasks, the participants had to look at a screen, analyze what was going on, and answer a simple question about the action in as little time as possible (i.e. whether a clump of erratically moving dots was migrating right or left across the screen on average). In order to make sure the effect wasn’t limited to just visual perception, the participants were also asked to complete an analogous task that was purely auditory.

The action game players were up to 25 percent faster at coming to a conclusion and answered just as many questions correctly as their strategy game playing peers.

“It’s not the case that the action game players are trigger-happy and less accurate: They are just as accurate and also faster,” Bavelier said. “Action game players make more correct decisions per unit time. If you are a surgeon or you are in the middle of a battlefield, that can make all the difference.”

The authors’ neural simulations shed light on why action gamers have augmented decision making capabilities. People make decisions based on probabilities that they are constantly calculating and refining in their heads, Bavelier explains. The process is called probabilistic inference. The brain continuously accumulates small pieces of visual or auditory information as a person surveys a scene, eventually gathering enough for the person to make what they perceive to be an accurate decision.

“Decisions are never black and white,” she said. “The brain is always computing probabilities. As you drive, for instance, you may see a movement on your right, estimate whether you are on a collision course, and based on that probability make a binary decision: brake or don’t brake.”

Action video game players’ brains are more efficient collectors of visual and auditory information, and therefore arrive at the necessary threshold of information they need to make a decision much faster than non gamers, the researchers found.

This research is fascinating and it answers some of the sports performance theories I have.  Now you need to understand that many people are blessed with faster thinking processes than others, just as some people are built stronger.  The difference is we all know the steps on how to get stronger (ie. weight training), but we don’t necessarily know how to increase our brain functioning. The thought that fast paced videogames could increase our cognitive functioning is an interesting topic, and one that I’d like to see more research done on.

The ability to calculate and process information up to 25% faster would be a huge advantage for athletes.  Let’s take a look at some examples: 1) A hockey player coming down the ice on a 2 on 1, does he make the pass or take the shot? The ability to make that decision a split second faster may be the difference in a successful goal or a botched opportunity. 2) A quarterback in football, does he force a pass (a la Brett Favre) or does he keep it and run for the 1st down? The difference could be a team championship or a forced disaster.  3) A linebacker in blitzing in football. Does he time the snap and make a huge play, like Troy Polamalu last weekend in the NFL, or does he take a moment to second guess his decision.  The applications in sport are endless.

When we think of what makes a good athlete “good,” we think of skills, strength, endurance, power and agility, but we don’t usually lump cognitive functioning as one of the categories. All of these attributes are important to any sport, but its finding the right combination of them that creates an exceptional athlete. You could be the strongest, fastest, or most agile athlete on the playing field. However if you  don’t have the ability to process incoming data and make decisions faster than an average player, then a potential great player may just be average.

In conclusion, even though this research shows that action videogames help stimulate brain functioning, I don’t recommend playing endless hours of “Halo” or “Call of Duty” to train for your sport.   On the contrary, there are multiple facets in which every athlete needs to train.  And it’s those hard hours spent training in the gym that build well rounded dominant athletes.  But rest assured, when it is time to relax and play a few videogames on the weekend, know that you are sharpening your senses as well as having a blast.

Trent Christie BSc Kin


SOURCE University of Rochester


One response to “Can Playing Video Games Lead to Better Sports Performance?

  1. This is pretty interesting stuff. I always believed sports games offer people unlimited simulated situations in which they could train their brain for when they enter the same situation. For example going off your example of a hockey player on a 2-on-1. If an athlete simulates it a hundred times in a video game and the majority of the time they have success looking for the third forward coming into the play late, I believe they’ll look for it when the actually get on the ice. I think sports video games also give people a better understanding of the rules and strategies of the sport. On TV when you watch the NFL they always talk about cover 2. If you play madden at all you can clearly see Cover 2 man = two deep safeties free in coverage whilst everyone else is in man to man or that Cover 2 zone = zone across the field with two deep safeties. I agree video games can make athletes better by raising their sport IQ and reaction time but as you said Trent, like everything in life it is best in moderation!

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