Can genetics predict what we can learn from playing video games?


The interest in the influence of video game experience on our daily life is constantly growing. What is the role of individual differences? Can genetic predisposition make us more prone to learn from playing video games?

“Video games foster the mindset that allows creativity to grow” – Nolan Bushnell

In our society, entertainment and technology go hand-in-hand and game developers and designers strive at optimizing the gaming experience and satisfying the needs of players. In the past decade, there has been an increasing interest in the possible cognitive benefits that playing video games may have on players.

Inspired by the seminal work by Daphne Bavelier and Shawn Green, in recent years, we have shown that playing  First Person Shooter (FPS) games is associated with improvements in mental flexibility and working memory. Indeed, if you think about it, the new generations of FPS, compared to strategic games, are not just about pressing a button at the right moment but require the players to develop an adaptive mindset to rapidly react and monitor fast moving visual and auditory stimuli.

However, the question is: What is the role of individual differences? Can genetic predisposition make us more prone to learn from playing video games?

For the first time at Leiden University, we online trained people, 30 minutes a day for three weeks, on playing “Half-Life 2”, a first-person shooter game which has been shown to improve mental flexibility. To determine the effect of genetics on the ability of learning from video game experience, we tested people with different genetic makeup (COMT Val158Met  polymorphism) related to levels of dopamine, a key neurochemical in the regulation of mental flexibility. Before and after the three weeks of video game intervention, the test persons performed on a computer screen the task-switching paradigm  in which they had to rapidly switch back and forth from two different tasks.

As expected, after the video game intervention, test persons with a beneficial genetic predisposition showed more enhanced mental flexibility than others. We believe that individual differences related to genetic variability affect the degree to which our brain will become plastic as a result of video game training. As suggested by Nolan Bushnell, indeed, video games foster our mindset and, even more, with the right genetic predisposition.

Colzato, L. S., van den Wildenberg, W., & Hommel, B. (2014). Cognitive control and the COMT Val158Met polymorphism: Genetic modulation of videogame training and transfer to task-switching efficiency. Psychological Research, 78, 670-678

(previously posted here)

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