Not all video games are equal in terms of executive functioning skills

Research shows video games that children play sitting still are negatively associated with executive functioning
Reinis Ivanovs, flickr.com, CC BY 2.0
Reinis Ivanovs, flickr.com, CC BY 2.0

Since the early days of Pong and Space Invaders, video games have continued to be a mainstay of the childhood experience. In 2009, American children between 8 and 18 years old played video games for an average of 1 hour and 13 minutes per day, according to a Kaiser Family Foundation study, which represents a substantial increase compared to 2004.

Studies on adults have found that gaming can have cognitive and behavioral benefits — but importantly, the type of video game matters. For instance, action video games (e.g. Halo, Call of Duty) have been linked to improvements in executive functioning skills such as attention, perception, and memory. But what are the effects of different types of video games on children?

A flash talk by postdoctoral researcher Rachel Flynn touched on this issue at the Society for Research in Child Development‘s special topic meeting, Technology and Media in Children’s Development. The meeting brought together a diverse mix of developmental psychologists, technology developers, and media producers to discuss the role of technology and media in children’s lives.

Flynn, a fellow in the McSilver Institute for Poverty Policy and Research at New York University, described her preliminary research on the relationship between video game play and executive functioning skills in children in a flash talk titled “Sedentary Video Game Play Negatively Relates to Executive Functioning Scores in Children.”

“Video games are a very interesting context because they require selective attention, inhibition, goals, and problem-solving,” she said. “However, most of the research that looks at video game play and how it relates to cognition has been done in young adults and adults.”

For their study, Flynn and her colleagues had 147 children ranging from 7 to 13 years old come to the lab with their parents. Their average age was 9, and they reported playing about an hour of video games per day. The children’s baseline executive functioning was measured with a computerized Flanker task, and then compared to weekly amount of video game play and their preferred game type.

“Sedentary video games” were defined as those played while sitting still, such as on a console or handheld device. This type of video game had a significant negative relationship with executive functioning. In other words, the more of these types of games the child played during the week, the lower their executive functioning scores. Active video games, or those that require standing and movement from players, had no significant relationship with executive functioning. Role-playing, racing, and first-person shooter games also had a negative relationship with test scores, while other types (e.g. puzzle, sports) did not.

“What these results highlight is that we need to look at game type when we’re thinking about cognition,” said Flynn. “We need to start thinking about how we can do experimental manipulations to examine the effects of these different types of games.”

The preliminary results build on her previous work on video games and executive functioning skills in children. In 2014, Flynn and her colleagues found that executive functioning in low-income youth improved after playing an active video game that involved physical activity.

Future work needs to delve further into these new results, which are purely correlational, and tease out whether certain features of video games influence executive functioning more so than others.