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Video games, neuroscience, memory and attention

By John Published: August 23, 2011

I know, I know, I'm supposed to be crunching numbers from the report cards, which will officially be released tomorrow at 10 a.m. My story on some results of the Akron report card is on

But hey, during a Google News break I found this interesting article on Gamasutra by Erin Robinson, a former neuroscientist turned video game developer about studies that explore the effect of gaming on the brain. For example, did you know that anterograde amnesiacs, who cannot form new memories because of brain damage, can learn to play Tetris and get better at it?

This is the latest bit of evidence to suggest that there are separate memory pathways in the brain: explicit memories, which are the people, places, and experiences we remember, and procedural memories, which are the skills we learn with practice. And it's possible to suffer damage to one pathway and not lose the other.

But here's the part most relevant to education: the effect of video games on children's brains. She warns to be wary of the "third variable" problem, which is related to the "correlation does not equal causation" axiom. If you look at a year of data on swimming accidents and a year of Popsicle sales and see that they rise together during certain months, it would be wrong to assume that an increase in Popsicle sales causes swimming accidents. You're leaving out a third variable, warm weather, that affects the other two. 
It seems obvious on paper that Popsicles don't cause swimming accidents. It becomes difficult, however, to put that knowledge into practice when you're working with incomplete information.

Consider one study about video games and attention problems in children. Say you follow a group of grade school boys and girls and ask their parents to provide detailed information about their video gaming habits. A year later you evaluate the children for attention problems, and sure enough, the gamers are worse off in school (a common outcome).

But can you say the games caused these children to develop attention problems? What about the reverse -- that kids who already find it hard to focus choose to play these games?

There are a multitude of potential "third variables" for these results: problems at school or home chasing the children to distraction, difficulties with socializing that lead them to choose games over peers, habits of inactivity that lead them to not just games, but TV, comics, movies... and there could be many others.

So despite this tantalizing evidence, the study never uses the word "cause" to describe the relationship between video games and attention problems (more accurate is "linked to" or "associated with"). To use the word "cause" or, God forbid, "prove" in this context, would be risking an academic career.

But that doesn't really make for a good headline, so instead we get things like this.

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