“Playing video games can make you a better driver.” That statement probably brings to mind games like Gran Turismo or Forza Motorsports. Sure, these games can teach players the mechanics of driving, especially when using steering wheels and pedal controls, but are they the best at improving driving skills?
Ironically, studies have shown that first-person shooters, like Call of Duty, actually provide more benefits for drivers than driving games do.
One of the most apparent and most cited positive effects of playing video games is improved eye-to-hand coordination. It has almost become a cliché in debates over the positive and negative effects of playing video games and is still hotly debated, despite it seeming like common sense.
Gaming has come a long way from the single-joystick, single-button days of the Atari 2600. Now players have to contend with gamepads featuring dual joysticks and 12 or more buttons.
Growing up through the evolution of controllers, some players likely find using modern devices effortless because they have been using these complicated input mechanisms all their lives. Their eye-to-hand coordination is already conditioned. But is that directly related to playing games or just an environmental factor?
According to a 2014 study by the University of Toronto, playing action-intense video games like Call of Duty or Assassin’s Creed did not reliably enhance sensorimotor control (eye-to-hand coordination). However, it did improve sensorimotor learning, meaning gamers were better than non-gamers at performing tasks with a “consistent and predictable structure.”
“… playing action-intense video games like Call of Duty or Assassin’s Creed did not reliably enhance sensorimotor control (eye-to-hand coordination), however it did improve sensorimotor learning… “
The researchers tested this by having the two groups keep a cursor within a white square as it moved around a computer screen. At first, both groups performed equally. As the participants continued to practice, the gamers showed far better and quicker improvement in keeping the cursor in the square than non-gamers.
It might not seem like keeping a cursor within a square on a computer screen translates well into making one a better driver, but it actually does. It’s not about the action that is taking place on the screen, but what is going on in the brain. The cognitive functions and visual acuity are what matters. Realizing the square has changed directions and then altering the course of the cursor before it leaves its confines relates directly to situations where a driver must make a split-second decision to avoid an accident.
The 2014 Toronto study is not the only evidence to show that Call of Duty and similar games can improve skills used in driving. Professor of Brain and Cognitive Sciences Daphne Bavelier at the University of Rochester has spent most of her time studying the cognitive effects of gaming and has some interesting insights into how playing action video games affect players.
In a 2012 TEDx talk (watch below), Dr. Bavelier debunked a long-held myth that playing video games damage a player’s eyesight. It might be intuitive to think that excessive time in front of the screen would harm your vision, but Bavelier says this is simply not true. She and her team have measured eyesight in the lab of gamers and non-gamers, and the former consistently had better vision than the latter — even those who played up to 15 hours per week tested better than 20/20 vision.
Not only do game players have better visual acuity, but they also have a sharper perception of different shades of gray. Dr. Bavelier analogizes this with an example of driving in a fog.
“The other way that gamers are better is actually being able to resolve different levels of gray,” Bavelier said. “Imagine you’re driving in the fog. That makes the difference between seeing the car in front of you and avoiding the accident or getting into an accident.”
Another myth that runs contrary to her findings is that games lead to attention problems and greater distractibility. Scientists have studied attention for decades, and there are plenty of standard tests to measure it in a quantifiable manner.
Bavelier found that people who play Call of Duty have far better attention than non-players. A simple test they used was to show test subjects colored words and ask them to state the ink color of each word as they appear. Some words introduced a cognitive conflict. For example, the word blue appearing in red ink. Results showed that the gamers were far quicker at resolving those conflicts than those that did not play.
Another attention test involves tracking multiple moving targets. The average person can keep tabs on about three or four objects at once. Action video game players have a span of around six to seven. These results are relatively predictable considering what it takes to play action games like Call of Duty, especially in hectic multiplayer matches. It’s a good thing too, since we need to keep that many browser tabs open just to have a shot at scoring a new graphics card these days.
Attention is a critical attribute when driving. Just think of all the things you have to pay attention to at the same time when driving — the cars in front, behind, and beside you; the children playing near the street up ahead; the color of the traffic signal; your speed; the speed of cross traffic when approaching a green light. There are many things you have to maintain focus on when driving. And lab tests show action gamers are very good at this.
Bavelier’s research further confirms the practical testing results with brain imaging. There are three areas of the brain that regulate attention. The parietal lobe controls the orientation of attention. The frontal lobe sustains attention. Lastly, the anterior cingulate controls how we allocate concentration and resolve conflict.
“Now, when we do brain imaging, we find that all three of these networks are actually much more efficient in people that play action games,” Bavelier said.
However, we again fall back to the argument of whether these results were directly related to playing games or just common environmental factors. Fortunately, Bavelier considered causality, too, which is easy to test in the lab.
Bavelier and her team performed a controlled training study to establish causality. What they did was have participants take cognitive tests at the start. Then subjects would play 10 hours of action games over two weeks in 40-minute sessions. Subjects then took the same cognitive tests, and the results found that not only did they perform better, but the improvements were still present five months after the training.
The training tests show two things. First, they prove the causality between visual and cognitive improvements when playing video games like Call of Duty. The positive effects are not caused by environmental conditions common to gamers. Second, it shows that training your brain on these games has lasting effects.
Another study out of Shanghai in 2016 showed that playing high-action titles physically rewires the brain, so the benefits are at least semi-permanent. The researchers wanted to know if playing video games improved practical driving skills. They also wanted to find out whether the type of game mattered.
They tested participants using a driving simulator. One group played action games for 5 to 10 hours, and the other played slower-paced games. The study found that the action players performed markedly better in subsequent simulator testing than the non-action players.
“Our research shows that playing easily accessible action video games for as little as 5 hours can be a cost-effective tool to help people improve essential visuomotor-control skills used for driving,” said researcher and co-author of the paper Li Li of New York University Shanghai.
Researchers used Mario Kart and Rollercoaster Tycoon for action and non-action training, respectively. The driving simulator was set up to have participants drive a car down a lane while compensating for crosswinds that affected the car’s behavior.
“Experienced action gamers showed much greater precision in keeping to their lane and showed less deviation from the center in the face of increasing headwinds when compared to the participants with little to no action video game experience,” said Li.
The studies from the Universities of Toronto, Rochester, and New York University Shanghai provide strong evidence that video games strengthen skills and cognitive functions vital to driving. They have found that things like object tracking, visual acuity, optical conflict resolution, attention, and reaction time are all positively influenced by gaming in moderation. However, not all games have these positive benefits. Slower-paced games seem to have no effect at all.
Ironically, the research shows that racing games have a more negligible effect on these attributes than first-person shooters — games where you spend most of your time on foot. That is not to say that racing titles have no benefits for drivers. The Shanghai study showed that Mario Kart improved reaction time better than playing Rollercoaster Tycoon.
One can also argue that racing games, especially simulators like Assetto Corsa, can impart the mechanical skills of driving a car. While we don’t spend our time in our daily drivers hitting a curve at 100 mph, racing games can give players an idea of when to brake or correct a skid, especially when using racing wheels and pedals.