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Video games linked to ADD? Say it ain't ooh butterfly

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Pity the brain that plays video games. Whether or not avid gaming turns one into bloodthirsty monster is a matter of open dispute among researchers, but one concession often observed is that video games at least trains mind and body to react faster.

Alas, a new study from Iowa State University not only disputes this claim, but offers a sideways indication that there's "relation" between frequent video game playing and ADD. That ought to get them media hacks riled up.

Here's how gaming was shown to dull the wits.

Hawkeye State boffins set up a test designed to quantify the effects of playing video games on two types of cognitive activity: proactive and reactive attention. Proactive attention is described as a "gearing up" mechanism, such as anticipating what action is needed next to progress in a game. Reactive attention is described as a "just in time" response, like to monster jumping out in front of the player.

The test used a basic visual task on both "frequent" video game players (those who play four hours or more per day) and occasional players while measuring their brain waves and behavioral responses. Individual subjects were asked to identify the color of a word when it was sometimes written with a different color than what the word represents. For example, the word "RED" could be written in the color red, or it could be written in color blue.

The idea is that because we have a tendency to read words automatically, a person must concentrate harder in order to quickly name the actual color when it's different than the word. This cognitive gag is known as the Stroop Task among academics.

While reactive control was similar in the two groups of gamers, brain wave and behavioral measures of proactive attention was found to be "significantly diminished" in frequent video game players according to the media release. It then takes an interesting leap in logic:

These data reveal a reduction in brain activity and disruption of behavior associated with sustained attention ability related to video game experience, which converges with other recent findings indicating that there is a relation between frequent video game playing and ADD.

The study itself will be published in the upcoming October issue of the journal, Psychophysiology. We emailed the co-author of the study, Kira Bailey, to ask if the release's throwaway gaming-to-ADD link is a fair conclusion of the research, but have not received a response as of publication.

Regardless, expect the ADD link to be added to the anti-gaming advocate tool chest. That noise you hear is Jack Thompson cackling manically in Florida. ®

Update

We received a response from two of the study's authors, Kira Bailey and Robert West on October 15:

The statement from the press release is partially correct. A recent study by Dr. Douglas Gentile, one of our colleagues at Iowa State University*, found that youth that were pathological gamers (i.e., addicted to video games) were 2.77 times more likely to report being diagnosed with an attention deficit (ADD or ADHD) than youth who were not pathological gamers. So there does seem to be some relationship between increased or high levels of video game experience and difficulties with attention in daily life.

The practical meaning of our findings is that playing lots of action video games may bias individuals away from a proactive or plan full mode of responding in situations that do not naturally hold attention and possibly toward a reactive mode of responding. At this point in time we don't know whether this effect is a direct cause of playing video games or whether it is a characteristic of folks who like to play a lot of video games.

*Gentile, D. (2009). Pathological video-game use among youth ages 8 to 18: A national survey. Psychological Science, 20, 594-602.

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