Experience in Action Games and the Effects on Executive Control

Many people spend numerous hours a day playing video games. Furthermore, the video game industry is expanding as the number of its clients constantly increases. Surveys show that 58 % of Americans play video games and 25 million Germans play games several times a month. This frequent use of video games occurs independently of gender, education, and income (e.g., BIU, 2012). Many politicians and members of the public media express their concerns about this development and refer to potentially negative social effects (which have not been entirely proven yet). However, cognitive research has provided evidence in recent years that experienced video gamers outperform non-experienced people in a number of basic cognitive functions. These positive effects in video gamers led us to investigate the potential of video games from an applied perspective (Strobach & Schubert, in press). Therefore, we will summarize some research on experience in action games and the effects of this experience on “executive functions”. After that we refer to options to apply these effects in real-world situations.

Cognitive research defines “executive functions” as a set of cognitive mechanisms with which people control and regulate their behavior under consideration of environmental factors. Executive functions encourage the selection of goals and the planning of actions. They also modulate and regulate information processing and several secondary sub-processes in this behavior (Miyake, Friedman, Emerson, Witzki, & Howerter, 2000).

Two dominant aspects of executive functions are the shifting between different informational stimuli and the updating of information. Shifting and updating are essential for several everyday situations, for example the modern requirements of office work with its variety of tasks, often performed under deadline pressures. These tasks are often done simultaneously or require quick and effective alternating between them. They necessitate fast inclusion, processing, and updating of relevant information and adequate decisions. Another good example of shifting and updating can be found in action games, in which gamers have to react to relevant stimuli quickly while ignoring irrelevant ones. They have to follow lots of different moving objects and also have to control and conduct multiple simultaneous tasks at a high speed. Important information, such as interim targets and assignments, must be updated all the time (Spence & Feng, 2010). The most prominent action games are first-person shooters such as Medal of Honor, Counter-Strike, or Call of Duty, and third-person shooters like Grand Theft Auto. In these games, gamers play in an open virtual world with a first-person or third-person perspective on the main character. They usually have to fight against enemies, find objects, and navigate through this world. Given these characteristics of action games with their complex situations and multiple tasks, we asked ourselves if there is a connection between experience in these games and the optimization of executive functions.

Action games and the “shifting” executive function

There is a good deal of support for the connection between action games and their effects on shifting between different informational inputs (Colzato, van Leeuwen, van den Wildenberg, & Hommel, 2010; Glass, Maddox, & Love, 2013; Schubert & Strobach, 2012; Strobach, Frensch, & Schubert, 2012). The investigation of the “shifting” executive function was carried out in transfer situations (i.e., situations that are different to and beyond the game context) in the experimental paradigm of task switching (Figure 1). In this paradigm, a sequence of stimuli is presented and these stimuli are allocated to different tasks. For example, participants are presented number-letter pairs in sequences. On some of these pairs participants perform a number task (Is the number of the number-letter pair odd or even?) and on other pairs they perform a letter task (Is the letter in the number-letter pair a vowel or a consonant?; Rogers & Monsell, 1995). The specific task instruction (i.e., number task or letter task) is mixed across different trials in the sequence, resulting in repetitions of the same task and shifts between the different tasks. So-called switch costs appear when comparing the performance in both situations (Figure 1). The response times are slower during the shift between tasks than during repetitions. These slower response times emerge because of the requirement to shift to a new task instead of merely repeating the same task. People with experience in action games, however, showed less switch costs than non-gamers (e.g., Strobach et al., 2012). This could be a first hint at optimized executive functions for a better shift between different information.


Figure 1. Panel (A): Illustration of stimuli (i.e., number-letter pairs) in the context of the task switching paradigm (Rogers & Monsell, 1995). Number-letter pairs are sequentially presented, rotating clock-wise from box to box (arrows illustrate this rotation). Participants are illustrated to manually respond to numbers (number task: even number vs. odd number) or letters (letter task: consonant vs. vowel) when pairs are presented in the upper two boxes and lower two boxes, respectively. This way of task instruction results in situations with task repetitions and task switches. Panel (B): additional demands on executive functions in situations with task switches typically result in higher response times in contrast to these times in situations with task repetitions. This difference is referred to as switch costs.

Do these advantages in gamers mean that there is a causal link between video game experience and optimized executive functions? The answer is no, not necessarily (Green, Strobach, & Schubert, 2014). Advantages in gamers do not have to be a result of video game experience. The optimized executive functions could be, for instance, inherited or given before they started playing video games. This would mean that optimized functions would then be independent of the video game experience and that there is no causal link between these functions and game experience. As a result, research on video games has implemented more and more training experiments with non-gamers to provide evidence for this causal link. For example, Strobach et al.’s (2012) training consisted of fifteen one hour sessions, in which two groups of non-gamers played different games. The first group worked on a puzzle game (Tetris) with only one main task and low executive function demands. The second group played an action game (Medal of Honor) with high executive function demands. The shift costs did not differ between both groups of puzzle and action gamers in a test on task switching performance before the training started. Afterwards, however, the results indicated lower shift costs in the action game group compared to the puzzle group. This training study thus shows that shift costs can be reduced with action game training specifically, and that this reduction cannot be traced to inherited, given, or previously acquired attributes. In other words, these results provide evidence for a causal link between video game experience and optimized executive functions for shifting between different tasks.

But do gamers also have advantages when they perform different tasks simultaneously (instead of a sequential performance of different tasks as in the task switching paradigm)? Are there any signs of optimized executive functions when gamers are put in dual-task situations (example in Figure 2)? Dual-task situations require the coordination of different tasks and task information due to executive functions (for instance, dual tasks may require the control of which task is performed first and which task second). This coordination leads to longer response times in dual-task situations compared to single-task situations. As in dual-task situations, action games also require an efficient and simultaneous performance of different tasks in order to be successful, which may lead to improved executive functioning in situations beyond the game context. Strobach et al.’s study (2012) has given us first indications that this assumption is true. This study compared the performance (response times) of gamers and non-gamers in dual and single-task situations. There was no difference in response times in single tasks between gamers and non-gamers. However, there was a difference in dual-tasks. Gamers showed faster response times and, therefore, better performance particularly in dual-task situations compared to non-gamers. This result confirms an optimization of executive functions for the coordination of two simultaneous tasks. Additionally, when focusing on dual-task performance, non-gamers benefitted more from action game training than from puzzle training, which further indicates a causal link between video game experience and optimized executive functions in dual-task situations.


Figure 2. Panel (A): Task 1 and Task 2 represent component tasks in the context of the dual-task paradigm (from Strobach, Frensch, & Schubert, 2012). In Task 1, participants respond to the pitch of tones while they respond to the size of shapes in Task 2; in both tasks they perform manual responses. These component tasks are either presented simultaneously in dual tasks or separately in single tasks. Panel (B): idealized illustration of performance in form of response times in single and dual tasks. Response times are typically increased in dual tasks in contrast to these times in single tasks.

Action games and the executive function “updating”

Can we expand the previously described results to other executive functions, such as the “updating” of information? In other words, does the continuous updating of information in action games (for example interim goals) lead to an optimized functionality of the updating of information in transfer situations outside of the game situation? Updating is usually tested in situations in which new information is continuously absorbed and compared with other information, for example in the “n-back paradigm” (Figure 3). In the “n-back paradigm”, a continuous sequence of different letters is shown and participants have to compare the current letter of the sequence with the letter n steps back (e.g., one or two steps) continually and then have to press a key at a match (i.e., identical letters). Gamers show more correct answers than non-gamers in the n-back paradigm, which indicates an optimized functionality of executive functions (specifically: the updating of information; Colzato, van den Wildenberg, Zmigrod, & Hommel, 2013). However, no increase in accuracy in the “n-back paradigm” could be registered in non-gamers after an action game training (Boot, Kramer, Simons, Fabiani, & Gratton, 2008). Therefore it remains unclear whether there really is a causal link between game experience and the executive function “updating“.


Figure 3. Panel (A): Illustration of the n-back paradigm (as realized in Colzato et al., 2013). In the context of this paradigm, participants are instructed to compare the current element of a sequence (e.g., a sequence with different letters) with the element n steps back (e.g., one, two or three steps). In case of a match (i.e., identical elements) they are instructed to give manual key press responses. The level of n determines the complexity level of the n-back situation and therefore the demand on the updating function. Panel (B): Typically, task performance (i.e., number of correct matches) decreases with the n level (e.g., decrease from n = 1 [1 back] to n = 2 [2 back]).

Action games, executive functions, and their potential application

Research suggests a connection between the executive function “shifting“ and possibly also “updating“ with experience in action games. Now the question is whether this connection exists in real-world situations outside of the laboratory. And if so, how can an application be specified? Our first choice of a possible application was normal, cognitive aging (not caused by an illness or neurological deficits), in which the use of action games could possibly optimize executive functions. This perspective is essential because executive functions are age-sensitive (i.e., their functionality decreases with age), which is valid for the executive function “shifting” and performance in the task switching and dual-task paradigms especially (Verhaeghen, 2011). Action games can, therefore, be instruments to delay and compensate these age-specific deficits. The idea of maintaining our performance levels in task switching and dual-tasks is becoming increasingly important as our society grows older and our pension sets in later. For example, later pensions may conflict with age-related deficits in executive functions in the context of office work. This work context is characterized by a multitude of tasks (e.g., making notes, making phone calls, browsing the internet, writing emails, conversations with colleagues, etc.). These tasks have to be performed under time pressure with rapid switches between them or even at the same time. Optimized executive functions such as flexible shifting between tasks may be a good option to successfully manage these demanding situations in the office work context until pension age. And one option to optimize executive functions may be playing action games.

Furthermore, action game playing may also contribute to elderly people’s ability to drive, as driving a car is also a complex and “executive” task (Anguera et al., 2013). That is, car driving requires the coordination and a combination of multiple component tasks (e.g., braking, accelerating, navigation, traffic control) into a coherent global action. A driving game training older adults (age group: 60 – 85 years) gave us the first positive evidence for a delay and optimization of age-specific deficits in executive functions. The driving game was practiced (1) in a dual-task situation with a second task (recognizing road signs) and (2) without this second task (i.e. a single task; Anguera et al., 2013; see also Strobach, Frensch, Soutschek, & Schubert, 2012). The older adults’ performance was measured in a dual-task situation after both types of training (practicing dual-task or single-task situations). The results revealed that people who had practiced dual tasks beforehand performed better than people who had practiced single tasks in a dual-task test. Thus, when older adults trained with a driving video game with high executive control demands, they experienced an optimization in situations in which there are high demands for executive functions.. However, it remains unclear whether this optimization can be transferred to driving in real-world traffic outside the lab context (Strobach & Schubert, in press). If so, video games could have a positive benefit on multiple levels. For example, prolonged mobility with old age could increase the number of social contacts as well as independence from external assistance. We recommend future studies in order to investigate these potential benefits of video games in a real-world context.

The modern world of employment with its complex technical systems sets tough demands for people in every age group, especially in settings such as traffic/air traffic control, power plant and industrial plant control, and for general surveillance of technical equipment (Chiappe, Conger, Liao, Caldwell, & Vu, 2013). The operating personnel need to coordinate different tasks efficiently in order to control these technologies. Traffic control, for example, will increase the amount of security cameras in the future, and only a few people will monitor these. These new technologies may reduce the physical work load, but they increase and intensify the cognitive load. In these cases action games and their use can optimize executive functions so that the people can compensate for this increased load. This direct link, however, has yet to be put to an empirical test.


Gamers, in comparison with non-gamers, show clear advantages in executive functions, specifically with respect to task switching and simultaneous task execution in dual task situations, as well as in the updating of information. Training studies indicate a causal link between experience in action games and advantages in executive functions (note that this link in the “updating” domain is still debated). We illustrated potential applications in the area of cognitive aging and in the handling and operation of technical systems.

Author notes

We thank Antonia Papadakis for proofreading the text. For all correspondences to this article, please address: Tilo Strobach, Medical School Hamburg, Department of Psychology, Am Kaiserkai 1, 20457 Hamburg, Germany. Emails can be sent to tilo.strobach@ medicalschool-hamburg.de


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