Video games and spatial learning

« The research, published in a Royal Society journal on Wednesday, found that people who played games such as Call of Duty, Grand Theft Auto V and Tomb Raider were more likely to employ navigational strategies associated with decreased grey matter in the hippocampus part of the brain. […]

By questioning the participants, the researchers examined whether they tackled the virtual reality task using a spatial or response learning strategy. A spatial strategy involves building relationships between landmarks in an environment and relies on the hippocampus. By contrast, a response strategy entails learning a series of movements (eg left and right turns) from given positions that act as stimuli, so that they become part of the procedural memory system, not involving conscious thought. »

As a gamer, here’s my take:

“Twitch” players of action games get an edge by moving their knowledge of the game world into subconscious thought, so they can react faster. The top Team Fortress 2 clans will practice on the same maps literally every day, to ‘burn in’ the appropriate reactions. If you want to be at the top of the rankings, that’s how you do it.

I did it once. I spent well over a hundred hours playing TF2 2Fort, and got up into the top 25% or so of the leaderboard. You end up in “flow”, your conscious mind turns off and you feel the responses to situations happening almost automatically. (As an aside, 2Fort is generally viewed as a joke map by serious players, because it’s so small that even people like me can learn to twitch it without too much time investment.)

But other than during that experiment, that’s not how I play games. The first thing I do in a new GTA game is wander around the city learning its geography, admiring the architecture, exploring it as a three dimensional space. That’s how I navigate real cities too — if I think of a destination somewhere in Austin, I get a 3D map in my mind of how to get there. I don’t know the sequence of turns or the street names.

That’s why I don’t play online shooters, in fact I don’t generally play shooters at all. While TF2 can be an enjoyable game for people who aren’t twitch players, most shooters aren’t enjoyable that way. Slow, sneaky and tactical is my style, so I tend to prefer games involving stealth.

That’s also why, of all the TF2 classes, the one I never got any good at was the Scout, which is the pure twitch class. I was best as Demoman and Engineer, which involve laying traps based on the 3D arrangement and connectivity of the map.

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