Couple in a cafe playing video games and reading a book

Gaming’s influence on people in technology

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Games probably influence humankind in a number of ways, but the jury is still out on how.

In a recent issue of E&T magazine, we looked at the way in which gaming has affected the technology industry, as well as its link to bad actors in the same space. If there is one thing that has gone alongside gaming as it continues to extend its reach, it is its tendency to attract moral panics.

Many top-selling games are not exactly renowned for their promotion of a balanced social environment. Crushing sweets doesn’t come high on the socially unacceptable scale, but it’s easy to see why people drew links between real-world violence and first-person shooters or antisocial behaviour and games based around carjacking – even if those links are tenuous at best and rule out the ability for humans to suspend disbelief in a virtual world.

The other side to gaming’s influence lies in whether it plays a much more positive role in development. Studies pop out every once in a while that attempt to demonstrate some sort of a link to cognitive development. To play most games, you need a certain level of attention. First-person shooters and similar high-activity games that crop up in esports tournaments seem to bear out the need for intense concentration. One glance away and you are probably on to your next life.

As Gillian Dale of Brock University and coworkers point out in a review paper for the Annals of the New York Academy of Neurosciences, games are not created equally in how they affect cognitive function. There is a question as to whether first-person shooters involve intense concentration on a single task or are more about presenting the player with a pile of distractions that they have to rapidly switch between. This is clearly different to a strategy game where much more planning is involved, although games designers will often insert distractions in order to trip the player up.

A second problem is the nature of the research. Some involve direct measurement, with the player wearing some kind of sensor cap that attempts to measure proxies for concentration. A lot of studies, though, tend to work on the basis of self-reporting, combined with some kind of test that is meant to tease out how much the participant is able to focus on a task. Self-reporting is always plagued with issues because there is no guarantee the person being surveyed is accurate in their answers. The tests themselves may also not be great proxies for what the researchers are trying to measure.

The results tend to be inconsistent. Some studies point to strategy games being associated with performance at school. Others, particularly those focused on older children and teenagers, did not find the same kind of link. One curious connection found by some was between video games and learning a second language. The rationale was that role-playing games tend to put more emphasis on the parts of the brain that handle communication.

There are arguments for gaming being a major influence on people’s decisions to get involved with certain sections of technology, if not computer technology as a whole. A common explanation for the greater number of men working in technology compared to women is the influence of games. The earliest programmers were mostly women – men in computer science generally opted for hardware design. This reversed in the 1960s, but the 1970s saw more women go into the field, only for that to then reverse when the home-computing revolution took hold in the 1980s - much of it driven by games. It is not a huge leap to go from being a games consumer to becoming a keen computer enthusiast to end up someone working in the field.

CodinGame’s annual survey, released at the start of the year, found a third of developers who use the site are almost completely self-taught in software development. The majority learned computer programming at school or university, but the survey does demonstrate a significant minority of people who identify as developers picked up most of their skills from free tutorials and self-guided practice. As a place where people take part in programming challenges built around games, CodinGame does lend itself to that kind of user so the survey may overstate the numbers relative to industry.

In its survey, machine learning and AI claimed the top spot in the ranking of techniques users wanted to improve. Almost half of them wanted to learn more, with video game development and web development coming in second and third positions, respectively.

Web development is arguably the other path into technology for people without a formal education in the area. Thanks to HTML5 and Javascript, a website is much more like a program than a static collection of pages with layout commands. Although Javascript is not the best advertisement for computer languages, plenty of people have learned to apply it warts and all. Javascript’s arcane syntax and traps for the unwary is perhaps a better test of concentration than taking out multiple enemies armed with a simulated gunsight.

In either case, the accessibility of the technologies involved have made it easier than ever to move from recreation to work.

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