Examining Specific Features of Video Games Which May Improve Task Switching

Nigel Robb and Kate A. Woodcock

Extended Abstract

The ability to switch between two tasks, or to switch between two ways of thinking about a set of stimuli, is one which we rely on heavily in our everyday lives and employment. This task switching ability is an executive function: a high-level cognitive process that coordinates and modulates other cognitive processes. Skill in task switching is positively associated with academic achievement and intelligence. Cognitive tests have been developed to measure task switching, and such tests regularly show that switching incurs a cost: an initial reduction in performance on the new task. Improving task switching so that such costs are reduced could have wide benefits for the general population. Additionally, specific deficits in task switching are shown in individuals with several neurodevelopmental disorders and may be linked to challenging behaviour in these disorders, suggesting that improving task switching could form an important part of a successful intervention strategy. A recent study found that, among novice players, those who trained on the action video games Unreal Tournament 2004 (UT2004) and Call of Duty 2 (COD2) showed greater improvements in task switching than those who trained on the life simulation game The Sims 2 (including the expansion pack The Sims 2: Open for Business). This suggests that playing UT2004 and COD2 involves engaging in activities that lead to greater improvements in task switching than playing The Sims 2. This study is one of several that have demonstrated greater improvements in task switching following training on action video games, as opposed to other kinds of video game.

Previous attempts to explain this phenomenon have focused on general features of action video games which may promote learning transfer, for example via the heightened physiological arousal that many games in this genre seem to facilitate in players. However, a comprehensive explanation of the phenomenon should incorporate a detailed understanding of how switching is tapped in these games. Since action video games and life simulation games differ in many respects, it is reasonable to expect that they may differ in the ways in which they place switching demands on the player. Understanding such differences is essential if we are to explain fully the greater improvements in switching ability that players of action video games display. As part of a larger project studying how specific video game features tap executive functions, we examined the gameplay of UT2004, COD2, and The Sims 2. By operationalising game features, we aimed to systematically articulate how executive functions such as switching are tapped in video games, using a mixture of descriptive and comparative analyses. We found that, at a general level, UT2004, COD2, and The Sims 2 share features which would place switching demands on the player. Here we focus on one such feature, namely that stimuli are presented to the player which afford multiple possible tasks, such that players must make a decision about which new task to carry out. Importantly, we show that there are marked differences in how this general feature is realised in, on the one hand, The Sims 2, and, on the other, UT2004 and COD2. We show that (1) The Sims 2 presents multiple possible tasks as a selection of explicit, discrete options, whereas UT2004 and COD2 do not; (2) UT2004 and COD2 require the player to choose and execute a new task more quickly than The Sims 2; and (3) UT2004 and COD2 provide feedback on the player’s success or otherwise on a new task more quickly than The Sims 2. Drawing on psychological and neuroscientific theory, we discuss how these differences may explain the greater improvements in task switching ability displayed by players of UT2004 and COD2. We also discuss other relevant differences between the games that warrant further investigation. Finally, we show how these findings can be applied to the design of cognitive training programs, both for the general population and for individuals with neurodevelopmental disorders associated with specific switching deficits.