PART V: Cognition and Digital Media


Studying: The Video Game

Asher Fairbanks; Elizabeth Schueler; and Allie Treadway


When it comes to everyday life our minds are used deliberately and incidentally to interpret the world around us. The power of our brain is represented by the supremacy of our cognitive systems and its adaptation to our ever-changing and shifting environments. From abstract thought to interactions with the physical world, our brain’s systems truly try to make order from chaos. However, what does our brain do when we are put into a faraway land or a simulated environment? How do our brains adapt to an artificial system of reality designed by the collective of human brains? The artificial system in question is video games. When we sit down and play a video game we are tasked with understanding a brand new complex system of actions and options. These systems work by playing off human cognition and its intricacies.

Though the first video game patent wasn’t created until 1964, physicist William Higinbotham is thought to have created the precursor to all video games. Higinbotham’s video game was simple. Displayed on an analog computer, this first video game was made to be an interactive experience at Higinbotham’s lab for visiting guests. The input and outputs for the game were simple: “Players could turn a knob to adjust the angle of the ball, and push a button to hit the ball towards the other player. As long as they pressed the button when the ball was in their court, players couldn’t actually miss the ball, but if they hit it at the wrong time or hit it at the wrong angle, the ball wouldn’t make it over the net” (Tretkoff, 2008). As we can see, these basic video games follow an input and output system that helps players interact with the in game environment. However, as time has passed and better gaming systems have been created, the complexity of our cognitive interaction with these games has also increased.

How can these video games based cognitive processes be used to increase exam scores? Is it possible that playing video games can be the same as preparing for an exam? Interestingly enough some games are so immersive that our brain’s neural representations of the actions we engage in with video games are the same as our actions of driving a car, reading a book, and solving complex problems. People argue that video games are fake, but the purpose of this project is to show that, to our brain, video games are just as real as reality itself.  In fact, we propose the implementation of using video games as a foundation to increase students’ study skills, academic motivation, thus increasing academic performance. This will be achieved through 1) careful examination of human cognitive systems, 2) examination of said cognitive systems in the context of playing video games, 3) comparing active cognitive systems during wise studying and video game interaction, and 4) implementing Wise Interventions to video game player cohorts.

Cognitive Basics

A combination of perception, attention, memory, language, visual imagery, mental mapping, problem solving, and reasoning help us know how to act in a given situation. This knowledge is what we call cognition. Video games stimulate every aspect of cognition: From the visual and auditory signals on the screen to a player’s understanding of the game’s mechanics and strategies to achieve a certain goal.

Due to previous research on cognition and the brain, and current technology, we can understand what is happening when we play a video game. In 1928, Edward Chace Tolman experimented with rats and discovered that the brain can make cognitive maps (Goldstein, 2019, pp 11-16), just like humans do. In fact, humans do this in the real and virtual world. When playing an open world game, one such as Minecraft, it is important to know where your home base is. While you do start with a map and can make more later on, a player might have to rely on their mental map of the area. Or in games such as Call of Duty, where there are many obstacles to hide behind, players who have  played the maps frequently will know what obstacles are nearest to their spawn point and where the caches are located.

The invention of computers revolutionized the way researchers thought about information processing. Donald Broadbent, in 1953, designed the first flow diagram of attention using a similar method to how computers store information. George Miller, in 1956, proposed the idea that the brain has limits on how much information it can store (e.g., seven plus or minus two). Video games require players to not only know the control of the game, but how to navigate the menu(s), where important locations are on a map, what enemy is vulnerable to what type of weapon, and more. There are also times where the player has to remember something they were told by an NPC, such as a password or a list of instructions.

In 1968, Richard Atkinson and Richard Shiffron made the three stages model of memory: Sensory, short-term, and long-term. In 1972, Endel Tulving further divided long term memory into an additional three components: Episodic, semantic, and procedural.

Last, but not least, is the idea of bottom-up and top-down processes. Bottom-up processes start at the “bottom” of the system, when environmental energy stimulates the receptors. Top-down processing originates in the brain, at the “top” of the perceptual system. It uses prior knowledge and expectations that lead to identification. Both occur when playing video games. For instance, there are several ways to play Minecraft. One of the main goals is to build a base. Some people plan out exactly how they want theirs to look like and set the world seed (what determines how the world is generated) to match what they want to do. Others, however, choose a random seed, find a spot they want to call home, and then decide what they want to build. The first is an example of top-down processing (planning before building) and the second is an example of bottom-up processing (building based on previously unknown location). Even the decision of choosing a seed or making a random world is an example of top-down or bottom-up processing. When you choose a seed, you know where different biomes are located, where different temples are, and where you will spawn into the world. Whereas if you randomly generate a world, you have no idea where you will spawn or what biomes are nearby. You have no control over what your world will be.

How you play Minecraft is also an example of a script, or a sequence of actions that occurs during a particular experience (Goldstein, 2019, p 241) and a schema, your knowledge about some aspects of your environment (Goldstein, 2019, p 240). You enter the world with nothing but a map and have to gather resources to survive. For example, you have to gather wood to make tools in order to gather stone to make more efficient tools.. On the first night, you should make a bed and gather food, which means you have to either farm wheat to make bread or kill animals and cook the meat. This is your script, which is allowed within Minecraft’s established schema. If you have played Minecraft before, you will know that there are different biomes (plains, ocean, mesa, jungle, etc.) that offer different resources and restrictions. For example, you cannot make a snowman in a desert biome. Biomes and villages also offer different resources. If you spawn in a desert biome, you have to spend time looking for a biome that has wood or find a village to make any progress. All of this makes up your schema in which your chosen script is enacted.

Video Game Cognition

The experience of video games involves many neurological processes ranging anywhere from simple visual perception to the utilization of fine motor skills and hand-eye coordination. When playing video games, essentially every part of the cortex plays a major role in some way. There are auditory and visual factors when viewing the gameplay, language comprehension when engaging in in-game dialogue, heavy emphasis on hand-eye coordination when translating the movements of one’s hands/body to the actual gameplay, some sense of spatial awareness within the world of the games one plays, focused attention and quick decision making when acting as characters and dealing with in-game conflict, and much more .

While playing video games, some of the initial aspects first taken in by the player are the graphics and audio features. Games are advertised and displayed in a fashion meant to catch the attention of the potential player. This attention is kept in-game as game developers have crafted their games in a way that will consistently engage and immerse the player in a field of perception registered by the visual cortex and auditory cortex (Goldstein, 2019, p 39).

Another aspect of video games that involve neurological processes is language comprehension. In many games, regardless of style or type, there’s some form of dialogue or written lore to enhance the gaming experience for the player. Understanding this language across different types of games is made possible largely by Wernicke’s area, a part of the brain associated with language comprehension (Goldstein, 2019, p 39). Because of this, we are able to comprehend language as it is spoken or read, which can be a major part of video games when interacting with other characters or receiving in-game instruction via text/dialogue .

Regarding the actual act of playing video games, there is a lot of hand-eye coordination and spatial awareness needed in order to play well. Video games can range from slow- to fast-paced and involve a number of required actions in order to play them even at the most basic level. From single direction side-scrollers (linear) to open world exploration games, the ability to know and understand one’s surroundings in the game they’re playing as well as navigate those surroundings in a productive way relative to the game comes primarily from the parietal lobe of the brain’s cortex (Goldstein, 2019, p 39). While immersed in the world of video games, awareness of what is happening is not all it takes to be ‘successful’ when playing. Decision making and quick thinking are also major skills to utilize when gaming, especially in first person shooter (FPS) games or fast-paced strategy games. These cognitive processes are primarily controlled by the frontal cortex of the brain (Goldstein, 2019,  p 39). This area of the brain is responsible for the coordination of the senses, problem solving, and general thinking. A large majority of video games are thinking-heavy, meaning they take a lot of thought and coordination to play. The frontal cortex, in a sense, ties it all together.

These processes of “what” and “where” come from two separate pathways within the brain. The “what” pathway, more scientifically known as the ventral pathway, takes place in the temporal lobe of the brain. This is what allows for the player to determine what is going on while they play. Some examples of this may include perceiving objects as what they are and how to interact with them, such as an axe in a game where the player can chop down trees for the usable material: wood. In addition to this initial perception of what the player is seeing and interacting with, they also have to have a sort of spatial awareness when it comes to the objects in question. Continuing with the axe/tree/wood example, the player needs to know where the grabbable part of the axe is, where the tree is relative to their character’s body, and how close or far they need to be to effectively hit the tree in order to chop it down. This level of processing is made possible by the dorsal pathway, otherwise known as the “where” pathway. It takes place in the parietal lobe of the brain, and allows for an understanding of depth and location (Goldstein, 2019, p 83). Knowing how to translate the actions from the player’s method of controlling into the actual gameplay is largely dependent on these processes working together in order to perform realistic and understandable actions within a gaming environment. Without their in-game perception, players cannot move forward with their in-game actions. It is their perceptions that allows for them to take action, such as being able to effectively cut a tree down in-game in order to obtain resources for future use. The player has to perceive the tools, surroundings, point of interest, and how to get their desired outcome, before they even begin the action.

Diving more specifically into perception as it relates to video games, entering the virtual world is much like experiencing an altered version of one’s own reality. There are things to uncover, explore, achieve, win, lose, battle, build, gather, and so on. Much like in the real world, a whole range of sensory data is waiting to be perceived by the player. Goldstein (2019), p 60 defines perception as “experiences resulting from stimulation of the senses.” Video games, with all their stimulating bells and whistles, create said experiences for the player that they may not have been able to experience in the immediate world at hand. While every game has something new to bring to the table (even sequels/prequels to already existing games), there’s a lot of top-down processing happening for even the newest of players. Once you’ve played a handful of different games, the mental toolbox you have of how to play other, unrelated games can essentially cover all the basics. Learning how to play new games isn’t typically an “eye to brain” process such as in bottom-up processing (Goldstein, 2019, p 67). Gamers can usually take what they know about the games they’ve already played and apply it to games they haven’t yet played and be relatively successful at the base level of playing.

This is made possible by game developers taking advantage of schemas in the environment, both physical and semantic (Goldstein, 2019, p 74). The schemas of video games often mimic real-life schemas, no matter how altered the reality of the game is. The “sky” is always separate from the “land,” the structures are always different from the ground, some things can be obviously held while some obviously cannot. These physical schemas are easily recognizable in games and often are things that can be adapted to and interacted with depending on what kind of game is being played. Semantic schemas of games can be a little different in that they are sometimes game-specific, but they are still easily transferable from the “real world” to in-game experiences. Kitchens are still for cooking, basketball courts are still for playing, bad guys are still for defeating, and so on. If a player were to see a sword in the game that they are playing, they would not assume it’s for eating soup. Our real-life schemas make the top-down processing of game-life schemas possible, and a wide range of games helps us to further develop and adapt to real-life and in-game schemas.

This being said, both bottom-up and top-down processing is vital for video game playing. They work together to create the ease and flow of one’s overall gaming experience. With the conjunction of the two, the player is able to quickly form a mental layout of the game they are playing. Whether the game has an open world or linear design, the gamer’s history and adaptability to gameplay makes for a smooth transition to any game due to their ever changing “inner landscape” when applied to gaming. The top-down processing comes from previous gaming as well as real-world experiences with everyday, easily recognizable objects. The bottom-up processing comes from the experience of playing a new game, or perhaps even playing a previously played game that’s been updated over time with new game mechanics and storylines. While every game comes with something new and exciting for the player to explore, conquer, build, fight, etc., one’s mental capacity doesn’t often have to make room for much more data to analyze and store. Much of it is already there, within our gaming schema, waiting to be utilized and applied.

Neural Representation in Video Games and Test preparation

Through sensory coding, or “neural representation,” cognitive neuroscientists have concluded that the high concentration neurons found in the visual cortex respond more frequently to horizontal and vertical orientations than to slanted or oblique orientations found in our environments (Goldstein, 2019, p 32). Just as humans move through their environment, some video games allow for the same mobility. Why? With the combination of our perception, and movement within the simulated world, we are able to explore the games environment while actively interacting with it. Perception affords action. Human perception is not only being able to recognize regularly occurring stimuli from the environment but also being able to interact with it (Goldstein, 2019, p 82). Through perception and action, humans are better suited to survive and accurately interpret their ever-changing chaotic environments. By the same token, we see this implemented into video games. As time passes in our simulated world we grow more accustomed to its rules, its physics, its context. Instead of using our legs and arms, we use our fingers. Whether it be with a mouse and keyboard or a controller, we are still taking advantage of our parietal and frontal lobes in finger movement (action) and use of our temporal, occipital lobe, and auditory cortex (perception).

While we passively enjoy our games the human brain is busy taking advantage of top-down processing via an established or growing cell assembly.  (Goldstein, 2019, p 45). Compositionally there are two ideas that align with neural networks: Structural connectivity and functional connectivity. Structural connectivity pertains to the physical wiring of nerve axons that span across different parts of the brain. While playing a video game structural connectivity allows for maximum communication across the brain while being exposed to multiple sensory representations of the game. (Goldstein, 2019, p 45). In order for game developers to achieve this representation, they aim at stimulating the visual, auditory, and parietal lobes within our brain’s cortex. Some developers’ goals are to make the games easy and seamless to play; while others aim to make games perceptually evocative. However, we cannot just have structure in our brain to interact with our in game worlds; we must have functional activity within the plastic structural connectivity. Functional connectivity pertains to the actual neural activity found in our brain’s structures. Stimuli from an array of games will be represented by different functional pathways, while diverse actions within said games will also share the same multidimensionality.

Different routes of encoding allow for higher probability of retrieval from our brain’s storage units. The term encoding variability refers to this concept.  When actively learning with different methods of encoding, we thus increase our chances of using our newly learned information in a much clearer and efficient manner. This is well in the context of learning complex systems of human biology, history, mathematics and other realms of academia, but where does encoding variability apply in the context of video games? For example, when studying for a test promoting encoding variability allows for greater recall in semantic facts for the test. While playing video games, encoding variability is promoted by the hundreds of different situations the game puts you in while actively using the same underlying console functions.

Does applying in-game mechanics to unique in-game scenarios create a stage for greater encoding variability? Can extensive video game processes translate into exam preparation and completion? When studying complex and novel material in school, we enact many prime powers of cognition. Attention allows perception to occur. Perception affords action. For example, what you perceive in your textbooks allows for the action of taking notes and the information you attend to then has the possibility of consolidation into our long-term memory (LTM) system. When studying test material, certain information is edited in our working memory (WM) thus encoding test material from WM into our LTM over time. This process of information consolidation compares starkly to our consolidation happening while playing video games.

When beginning a new game, the schemas and mechanisms are somewhat fresh to our perceptual knowledge. Depending on the video game, long term progression and active learning result in mastery of the game’s systems by the end of one’s playthrough. As you master the skills it takes to pass an exam, you use the same cognitive mechanisms you used to beat a one-hundred hour video game. The parallels between attention, perception, WM and LTM in video game playing and test preparation/completion are only a matter of situation and content.

After continuous hours of playing a game we come to master the contents of its simulated world. Through findings in cognitive psychology, researchers have found evidence that the brain adapts to different environments. Findings from Blakemore and Cooper’s research with the kittens mentioned earlier allude to the concept of “experience-dependent plasticity” or the process of how “experience can shape our nervous system” (Goldstein, 2019, p 79). Test practice and mock tests create a generation effect to enhance testing outcomes. The generation effect dictates that creating information yourself (e.g., mock tests) promotes stronger encoding which in turn enhances learning (Goldstein, 2019, p 194). While playing video games, you encounter mock boss fights to prepare you for the final battle; while studying for a test, you can take advantage of mock tests in preparation for the real one. Over time these mock tests allow for our WM to be constantly processing while we grind our way through old and novel information. The more we prepare for the final task the more we will be ready to execute to our fullest cognitive capacity when it really matters.

As formerly mentioned, long exposure to video games can make you better at the game itself. For example, games, just like our real physical world, have consistency in their schematic design. The in-game mechanics are consistent features that are built directly into the programming to allow players to seamlessly interact with their worlds. The magical thing about these games is that designers are almost free to establish a multitude of different worlds. When repeatedly exposed to these differences with in-game mechanics our brain is then faced with raw learning. This raw learning stimulates structural pathways that then become more functional pathways. In clearer terms, the more consistent the neural firing, the higher probability these neurons will develop a cell assembly to thus represent the emerging video game world. This is how experience-dependent plasticity applies to video games. With the combination of experience-dependent plasticity encoding variability, synaptic consolidation, and system consolidation video games set up an amazing arena where one can train the mind. Interestingly enough, if we apply the formally asserted material to studying a test, especially containing content of a new academic subject, we can see similar cognitive adaptation to school information and video game information.

In hopes of applying multidimensional coding into the contexts of video games, let’s take a look at information processing via player and gaming console. From the paradigm of information processing, cognitive scientists, namely Broadbent, created a model for explaining the passings of codes in and out of a computer system (Goldstein, 2019, p 14). The information processing system consists of 1) an input via stimulation of feature detectors and 2) an internal processing of the arrived stimulus. The output is always based on phase one, the input (Kleinknecht, 2020, week 2). In the context of humans playing a video game, it would be the same: Input via visual or auditory stimulus from the display monitor and cognitive based processing of stimulus. Behavioral and cognitive output is based on the input of auditory or visual stimulus. Interestingly enough this information processing would then be enacted by our gaming console or computer .

Systems of Memory and Attention for Video games and studying

Throughout this paper, we have discussed attention and memory and how they play into video games. Now we will go into more detail as to what each one entails. Attention is, in short, the process of focusing on a specific stimulus instead of several. However, we are capable of attentional capture, or when your attention is directed elsewhere. This can be your mind wandering or when there is evocative stimuli in the environment, such as a squirrel running up a tree. Sadly, selective attentional control is more difficult. It can, however, be increased through better management of extensive control of inhibition by focused-attention meditation. So if attention is desired, why is it easier for attentional capture? Attention takes energy to engage. During selective attention and attentional capture, there is moment to moment tension between top-down and bottom-up pressures. When our attention is divided and distracted, or when attention capture overrides selectivity, you experience a decrease in performance. The former is via the dorsal stream and is a cool executive function (EF) and the latter is via the ventral stream and is a hot EF. EFs are involved in task switching and inhibitory control and are controlled by the central executive in the WM model.

The WM model is the theory that the central executive controls three parts: the visuospatial sketchpad, the episodic buffer, and the phonological loop. The latter three comprise the WM and all work to add information to LTM. WM is the temporary and limited-capacity storage system that allows for the manipulation of tasks and information involving learning and comprehension (Goldstein, 2019, p 143). LTM is, as expected, the system that stores information over a long period of time (Goldstein, 2019, p 162). In both the real world and the gaming world the same principles of our attention, WM, and LTM are present and operating. Stimuli from both environments will have the same effects within our brain’s operating systems.

In order to effectively take exams, it is first necessary to utilize one’s control over their attention so that they may focus on the tasks and information needed to perform well during the exam process. Due to the strength of video game stimuli, the attentional system is taking advantage of attentional capture versus when you are studying, where the attentional system requires selective attention. This often begins long before the exam situation even happens. It begins at the first read of the text, or first mention of the material in lecture. The student needs to somehow avoid distraction, dividing their attention, and mind-wandering when initially learning the material so that they may set the foundation for future information manipulation relative to the testing material. Essentially, the student needs to focus their attention on what they ought to be learning in class, so that they may relay and apply that information to the test they will be taking in the future.

After the initial learning experience, the rehearsal of the information in the WM stage of the memory process is next. When the information is in the WM system, the student is able to take what they’ve learned both in and out of class and manipulate it in ways that make it easier to put to and retrieve from their LTM. Manipulation, in this sense, comes in the form of articulatory rehearsal (Goldstein, 2019, p 144) and visualization (Goldstein, 2019, p 146). When preparing for an exam, a student will typically study previously learned information in an effort to put it to their LTM to be retrieved during the exam. To do this, the student might re-read their notes, re-write their notes, make flashcards, create practice questions to answer, and so on. All of this enhances the student’s ability to later recall the information required to perform well on their exams.

LTM comes during the process of taking the exam. During this time, the student recalls information previously learned and rehearsed that was then “archived” in the LTM system. Earlier in this paper, we discussed episodic, semantic, and procedural memory. Episodic memory helps the student to remember the experience of learning the test material. This involves where the student was, what the environment was like, how they learned the material, and so on; it puts the student back in the place of learning (Goldstein, 2019, p 175). Semantic memory is the memory of facts, and therefore would likely carry the bulk of what the student needs to remember for their exam, as all the factual information would be stored there (Goldstein, 2019, p 175). Procedural memory is also involved in exam taking. While it is also called skill memory, it involves the knowledge of how to take exams and everything that comes with that, such as utilizing writing utensils or interacting with a computer of some kind (Goldstein, 2019, p 180). All of these parts of LTM are involved in the test taking process, as it is a task that requires the mental jump back in time to retrieve and apply previously learned information.

Cognitions of attention, WM, and LTM all play integral parts in our daily lives. Whether we are preparing for a psychology test or playing our favorite video game we are using attention to bind color, form, movement, and location. The combination of these binding variables allow attention to turn into action (Goldstein, 2019, p 119). Attention, however, is a limited capacity system. The very nature of its reality has drawbacks due to how many things in our world are extremely distracting. In the context of exam preparation, attention is an essential ingredient in testing success. How can we make sure to limit distraction while engaging in studying tasks? Primarily, the degree of distractibility in any given task will depend on how complex the task is. If we are engaged in high-load tasks we have a small amount of perceptual capacity in which distraction can occur. In cases of studying for physics or algebra, the complex mathematical equations allow for little mind wandering to occur. Studying for other material, ones that focus on semantic remembrance such as, history, social sciences, or English might be considered low-load tasks. This, of course, depends on the frequency of studying the material and overall comprehension.

For example, we will use these academic subjects as low-load concepts in studying. In reality, however, one can be so good at mathematical equations that they are a low-load task. On the other hand one could be struggling with comprehension of history, thus rendering it a high-load task. Regardless of what these tasks are, contingencies corresponding to their difficulty must be set up to allow for greater attention. One major variable that can help with distractibility is the degree of cleanliness around your work area. The more cluttered your desk is, the greater chance your attention will pick up on irrelevant, but salient objects. The same can be said about phones or other computer tabs. If there is an abundance of objects or points of attention surrounding your workspace then you have a greater chance of distraction. To enhance our attention, we simply limit the degree of salience stimuli in our immediate work area. Video games are usually high-load tasks in which players are fully immersed in active world design.

To remember which button sequence to press for a finishing move, or to remember semantic information for an exam question, we must use the brain’s superpowers, that of WM and LTM. As previously described, these two complex parts of our brain’s memory systems allow for learning and comprehension of complex testing material or complex game tasks. Usually, our memory systems have limited capacities also. For example, the average digit span in WM is 6 to 9 bits of information. Within the structural features of WM models, there are control processes that help manipulate incoming information and information from LTM. For example, one common method of controlling our WM is that of rehearsal. Rehearsal is simply repeating a registered stimulus in hopes of keeping the information in WM long enough to be stored in our LTM or long enough to complete an attention relevant task (Goldstein, 2019, p 132) In the context of video gameplay, quick rehearsal is often used in puzzle solving or other game situations that require the remembering of small digit spans. When studying for tests, especially using mock tests, rehearsal can be a quick and effective way of remembering novel information. Another process we can engage in to enhance our memory is that of chunking. Chunking is the breaking down of meaningful material into smaller manageable  units of information (Goldstein, 2019, p 140). While chunking can be used in the context of remembering complex in-game mechanics, it is more prudentially used in academia. By using this mental shortcut, we can encode longer strands of complex information into our LTM. The retrieval of such information usually takes the guise of individual chunks that have relevant meaning to only some stimuli in question. Methods of chunking and rehearsal can be used in tandem with each other for enhancing recall from LTM. For LTM to reach its fullest potential, deep processing is essential. Deep processing entails more than just active attention and rehearsal.

The leading role of LTM in video gameplay and test-taking is that of, encoding, retrieval, and consolidation. To streamline these processes, it is important to organize your information, whether it’s a skillset from a certain game or complex material for a biology test. As our memory systems organize, so too must we when undertaking complex tasks. Next, we want to create what is called the generation effect. This effect entails creating testing material for yourself rather than receiving it from an outside source. In the context of exam preparation, it is prudent for us to create mock tests ourselves rather than relying on one classmate or teacher-created. By rehearsal, through self-made mock tests, we allow enhancement to retention which allows for greater retrieval when needed. After you’ve begun the foundations of a generational effect students would want to elaborate on the content they are learning. This reflection on meaning and context gives students that much more strength in their encoding variability. The greater the active elaboration a student or gamer uses the greater chance there will be a successful retrieval from LTM. Finally, one way to enhance our cognitions, especially concerning WM and LTM, is to space out the intervals of studying out. As formerly mentioned, our brains can only handle so much at one time. If we are flooding our system with too much complex information, we are unlikely to benefit. Studying in short sessions with breaks in between allowing for less stress and enhanced comprehension. Video games and studying alike can be too much for our minds in excess. In order to use our cognitive systems to their fullest, we must be gentle with ourselves and enjoy everything in moderation.

Good at Video Games? Even better at studying and exams. The Union of Video Game Skill and Academic Achievement

A wise intervention (see Figure 1) is a psychological remedy for social and personal problems and aims to change a negative situation in a person’s environment. They take the individual’s psychological reality into consideration and target the meaning of harmful interpretations people have about academic struggle, self-esteem, intergroup relations (e.g., race, gender, nationality, etc.), and much more. These interventions alter specific ways people make sense of themselves or social situations, which then lead to a positive change in the person’s behavior. They also aim to improve long-term trajectories; the new behaviors become self-fulfilling and become ingrained in the person’s daily life.

Our wise intervention aims at improving video gamers’ academic experience.  Many students struggle with test taking and may not get excellent grades. However, they may excell at video games. While people may not realize it, playing a video game and preparing for a test are quite similar: Both introduce you to new topics/techniques/skills, require you to use these skills in a) homework or b) battles, and then test you at the end of the term with an exam or a video game with a final boss fight. Our wise intervention helps students who already know how to do the above in video games learn to do the same with testing by making tests, and the preparation for them, seem more like video games.

Wise interventions should not only provide the structural reform to increase positive outcomes, but also a theoretical analysis of the individual’s meanings, interpretations, and beliefs. They also go hand-in-hand with structural reform: “Removing a psychological obstacle in an environment that does not provide opportunities to learn will not help” (Walton & Wilson, 2018). The same is true for the inverse: If the obstacle is left unremedied, improving learning opportunities will not be effective. Interventions will only be effective in the contexts in which the interventions’ relevant meanings are at play.

To help you see the connection, consider an example Walton and Wilson (2018) present in their paper on wise interventions. They discuss how people are less likely to pursue goals they do not think they are likely to achieve (Walton & Wilson, 2018). This is an issue that is only intensified by perceived failures by the person pursuing the goal. The authors give the example of students feeling as though their poor exam scores are due to a lack of ability within the subject or test taking in general. This perceived lack of ability is likely to cause students to ‘give up’ on studying any further due to their belief that it will not benefit them anyway, causing them to continue receiving low scores on future exams. As a self-defeating cycle, this is something that’ll continue to go on until some form of intervention is held. What works best for these situations are attributional retraining interventions, which help to have people see that their perceived struggles are due to external factors that are within their control and can be changed over time if the effort is put in (as opposed to the struggled being due to the inadequacy of the self and therefore unchangeable).

For the example of the students and exams, it’s very helpful for students to realize that their poor grades are not a factor of their lack of ability in the subject or exam taking, but rather is a factor of something that they can change with practice over time. It’s easy to fall into a rut when one gets back an exam they thought they’d do well on but ended up getting a lower score than anticipated. What works for this situation is to help students to realize that they can improve their future scores by working on things such as better study habits, being more proactive about assignments, asking teachers/professors for more direction in and out of class, and organizing their materials so that they’re easy to go through for studying purposes. All of these things may be worked on, and are in no way related to one’s personal level of “ability” when it comes to schooling, meaning that they can improve upon these things individually which would likely result in better exam performance in the future. Another thing that works is having students tell others about certain challenges and struggles they’ve faced and overcome in the past. By explaining these things, they’re more likely to realize that they’ve gotten through similar situations before, including the how-to process as well. The researchers call this technique “prompting with information.”

What doesn’t work in this situation is constantly telling students that they need to work on certain things so that their scores improve. Telling people what they need to do makes them less motivated to do it. In a way, it has to come from within. There has to be motivation to succeed originally within the student, rather than someone externally telling them what they ought to desire and strive for. Similarly, it doesn’t help to tell a student everything that they have been doing wrong. Pointing out the shortcomings of students when they’re already feeling inadequate and like they lack the ability to succeed only further enhances this feeling in all the worst ways. Reinforcing their feelings of inadequacy is more likely to make them want to “give up” in their situations.

Students who are regular gamers who also struggle with academics often have this labeled as a cause-and-effect personality trait of theirs. Essentially, video gaming is often perceived as an extreme hindrance to academics, and many people hold the belief that students cannot be avid gamers while also succeeding academically. It is not uncommon to see students who feel like they don’t have the ability to succeed academically simply because they “aren’t good at school.” This feeling is reinforced by people telling students that their lack of success is due to too much of their energy being devoted to their games and not enough to their school work and studying. Additionally, when students are exceptionally good at gaming, they may feel that they are unable to acquire the skills needed to be successful academically since they’re so good at one thing and not-so-good at the next. Especially with the way videogames are set up with their reward systems and immediate gratification when playing, it’s easier to feel successful when gaming than it is when studying for a far-off exam that has a much slower return time on the results. These circumstances can make it more difficult to feel motivated to study rather than play video games, and even further feel good about the decision to study because of the possible positive results in the future. For these reasons, wise interventions may be beneficial to the student-gamer in terms of redirecting or even dividing their energy in a way that encourages them to see how they may take control of their own improvement and later success.



As we can see, the raw power of our brain’s cognitions allows us to not only navigate through our natural world but also navigate successfully in video games. Learning schemas, stimulating our memory, and taking advantage of our attentional systems all apply in the real world and the gaming world. With that being said the neural representation of our experience is so vivid that no matter what context we are in we can take the power of our brain with us. If one is successful at playing video games, the cognitive skills developed in that context can be used to be successful at other tasks driven by our cognition.

[insert logic model here]


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Walton, G. (2014). The new science of wise psychological interventions. Current Directions in Psychological Science, 23(73), 73-82. doi: 10.1177/0963721413512856

Walton, G. M. & Wilson, T. D. (2018). Wise interventions: Psychological remedies for social and personal problems. Psychological Review, 125(5), 617-655. doi: 10.1037/rev0000115


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What is Cognitive Psychology Good For? Wise Interventions for Personal Growth Copyright © 2020 by Asher Fairbanks; Elizabeth Schueler; and Allie Treadway is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivatives 4.0 International License, except where otherwise noted.

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