Expert Commentary

Cognitive pitfall! Videogame players are not immune to dual-task costs

2012 study by Duke, Penn State and Colby on how skilled video game players are not necessarily better multitaskers.

Doing several things at once is often considered a necessary skill in modern society, but with media multitasking — and multitasking involving demanding tasks such as studying or driving a car — performance may seriously degrade. Studies have shown that serious video gamers may possess superior cognitive skills to those of non-gamers, but does this necessarily equate to superior multitasking abilities? Are skilled gamers really more likely to be part of what researchers have identified as the multitasking elite — the 2.5% of the population that are termed “supertaskers”?

A 2012 study by Duke, Colby and Penn State published in Attention, Perception & Psychophysics, “Cognitive Pitfall! Videogame Players Are Not Immune to Dual-Task Costs,” looks at how gamers and non-gamers perform simultaneous tasks and whether serious gamers were better at multitasking than non-gamers. The researchers devised three simulations that measured driving speed and safety, multi-object tracking and image search skills. Each simulation had two versions: a single-track version involving only the simulation task; and a dual-track version in which participants were asked trivia questions while completing the simulation. Participants were 52 males and eight females between 16 and 24 years old; approximately 32% were serious gamers, 43% were non-gamers and 25% had some gaming experience.

The study’s findings include:

  • “All of the participants … performed worse during the dual-task condition, and there were no differences in how they were affected.” None of the subjects, including both gamers and non-gamers, met the requirements to be classified as supertaskers.
  • The authors suggest that “there are indeed limits to [gaming’s] benefits” and that gamers’ heightened powers of perception may be restricted to one task at a time.
  • In the driving simulation, subjects drove more slowly when they were being questioned than when they were not; however, they experienced fewer accidents overall. The researchers caution that “obstacles in this situation were visible for a great distance before they were approached, whereas obstacles often emerge suddenly in actual driving.”
  • Outcomes in the dual-track versions of the multiple-object tracking and image search simulations were both lower than the single-track outcomes.
  • The researchers suggest that a gamer’s “heightened visual attention may come at the expense of the attentional resources available to other modalities” such as sound, and that these shortcomings may only emerge when faced with unfamiliar tasks.

“This result demonstrates just how detrimental a concurrent distracting task can be,” the authors conclude. “Combined with other, previous evidence … this highlights how important it is for society to understand the limits of attentional processing.”

Tags: youth, technology, cognition

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