Monday, February 1, 2010

Video Games and Learned Behavior

There has always been much debate over the role of violent video games and real violence. Can playing violent video games lead or cause someone to act out violently? The research has always been somewhat mixed (some shows short-term correlations, others none), but the media always seems to look towards video games as culprit whenever an adolescent commits a violent crime (was he playing "Grand Theft Auto," etc.).

And while the research has always been mixed regarding gaming and violence, what about a connection between sports gaming (Madden, Wii) and actually playing sports? Wired Magazine offers up an interesting article on the relationship between gaming and athletics, and How Video Games Trained A Generation of Athletes:

Today’s football players have an edge that no athletes before them have possessed: They’ve played more football than any cohort in history. Even with the rise of year-round training, full-contact practice time on the field hasn’t increased — in fact, it has actually gone down, as coaches have tried to limit the physical punishment that the game exacts. But videogames, especially the ubiquitous Madden NFL, now allow athletes of all ages to extend their training beyond their bodies.

If you’re, say, an All-American quarterback at a top college program, odds are that you’ve been training on a very sophisticated, off-the-shelf simulator — a cross between a football tutorial and a real-time documentary, drizzled with addictive Skinnerian action-reward mechanics — for as long as you can remember. The many hundreds — even thousands — of hours that athletes put into videogame football give them more game experience (and, as Stokley demonstrated, sometimes more game awareness) than Bart Starr, Terry Bradshaw, or Joe Montana were able to log in previous eras. And there’s the possibility, too, that all this electronic play is changing the structure of their brains, at least in some ways, for the better.

Marshall Faulk, former superstar running back for the St. Louis Rams (he appeared on the cover of Madden 2003), says that when he entered the NFL in 1994, “probably 10, 15, 20 percent” of the players were gamers. “Now? Anywhere from 50 percent on up,” he says. “Because Madden is sort of a mainstay in football, a lot of the kids playing in the NFL now grew up on it. It makes you a better football player.” Faulk may be understating the title’s popularity in the league: When I asked Stokley how many NFL players are Madden players, his estimate was even higher: “Everybody.”

I'm not so sure there is a causal correlation between gaming and making it to the NFL (or any other professional sport). The fact that 50% or more of pro ballers play video games may be merely indicative of the free time they have when not out training or playing. Ditto athletes at the college or high school level.

But using historical analysis, is there a difference in the level of professional athletics today versus ten, twenty or forty years ago? Can we chart changes in the evolution of play to the evolution of technology (and the early days of video games, which sports talk show host Jim Rome hilariously riffs on)?

Who says video games don’t lead to (learned behaviors)?! There’s probably a whole generation of middle-agers who are extremely skilled at dodging cars in the street, and jumping onto lily pads or blasting centipedes and asteroids. Give it another decade before a whole generation of Grand Theft Auto players become experts at urban crime and carjacking.

Talent and hard work will always trump sitting in “man caves” for hours at a time gaming. But the guys who do both, definitely have an edge! Because it’s pretty obvious who didn’t grow up playing Madden…the ‘Ol Gunslinger! Because if he had, he would have known to never to throw back over the middle late!

Then again, it’s not his fault there was no passing when he played Electronic Football as a kid. Just vibrating magnets that all washed to the center of the board.

Times they are a changin'. I'm still skeptical of an overall causal connection between gaming and any kind of behavior. Millions of kids play "Madden" and will never set foot on a gridiron, just as millions enjoy "Grand Theft Auto" and never pick up a real gun or commit a crime.

But the evidence coming in is intriguing: for those who are athletes of a very skilled level, gaming may indeed be giving them an edge in today's professional sports world.

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