Does playing 'Grand Theft Auto' make you smarter?

Scientists have found that those who play action video games such as Grand Theft Auto: San Andreas and Halo 2 show improved ability at making quick and accurate decisions.

By , LiveScience Contributor

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    A scene from 'Grand Theft Auto: Liberty City Stories.' Researchers have found that playing action video games can lead to improved decision-making skills.
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Video games really could make your mind sharper by improving your decision-making skills, a new study finds.

Past research showed that people who play action video games have faster reaction times than those who don't play the games. Action video games typically refer to "shooter games, where you go through a maze and you don't know when a villain will appear," said researcher Daphne Bavelier, a cognitive neuroscientist at the University of Rochester in New York.

Still, one could argue that action games just make gamers trigger-happy, apt to react quickly but not accurately. After all, action games are "not exactly what you'd think of as mind-enhancing," Bavelier said. [Play brain-training games.]

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Now scientists find action gamers apparently are better at making quick and accurate decisions, ones based on details they extract from their surroundings. This appears to explain why video game-playing skills translate into broad improvements in many kinds of tasks, regardless of whether those depend on sharp eyes or the ability to pay attention.

"It is quite unusual to find a training regimen that seems to benefit so many different aspects of behavior," Bavelier told LiveScience. [Play brain-training games.]

Gamers vs. non-gamers

The researchers compared action video-gamers and non-gamers with a series of simple decision-making experiments. (Gamers devoted at least five hours weekly in the year before the experiment to playing action video games, such as Grand Theft Auto: San Andreas and Halo 2.) They presented volunteers with arrays of dots, asked them to identify which way the dots were moving, and varied the number of dots moving in the same direction to make the task easier or harder.

The 11 gamer volunteers were able to make those judgments faster than the 12 non-gamers without sacrificing accuracy, researchers found. They also excelled in an auditory decision-making test in which volunteers were presented with noises through headphones and asked to figure out whether the sound was heard in their right or their left ear.

These results do not seem due to any particular appeal these games have to people with especially sharp vision or an unusual level of attention to detail, Bavelier said. Non-gamers who were forced to play action video games, such as Unreal Tournament 2004 and Call of Duty 2, for 50 hours got better at making informed decisions as well.

Why gaming makes you smarter

Most types of training only lead to improvements at the specific task at hand, with limited improvements on other tasks, even if they are closely related. "That's why when you give a test that's just a little different from what you did in class, half the students fall flat," Bavelier said.

The broad improvements in performance seen with action video games could be due to how they are inherently unpredictable.

"Our brains constantly perform probabilistic inferences — as you drive along and detect some unexpected moving object on the right side of the road, say a motorcycle, your brain will compute how likely it is that you are on a collision path with that motorcycle, and then infer from this probability whether you need to steer left or not," Bavelier explained. "This kind of inference is used each time we make a decision." Action video games give an edge "by improving this inference process," she noted, while strategy or role-playing games did not have the same effect.

The scientists detailed their findings online Sept. 16 in the journal Current Biology.

IN PICTURES: Controversial video games

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