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We’re over the hill at 24? So says computer-game study

April 16, 2014
Courtesy of Simon Fraser University
and World Science staff

It’s a hard pill to swal­low, but if you’re over 24 years of age you’ve al­ready peak­ed in terms of cog­ni­tive-mo­tor per­for­mance—speed in ex­e­cut­ing de­ci­sions, a study of vi­deogame play­ers sug­gests.

But, the study found, old­er play­ers seem to com­pen­sate for the de­cline by us­ing smarter strate­gies.

Re­search­ers at Si­mon Fra­ser Uni­vers­ity in Brit­ish Co­lum­bia de­scribe the study in a new pa­per in the re­search jour­nal PLoS One. They an­a­lyzed per­for­mance records of 3,305 play­ers, aged 16 to 44, of Star­Craft 2—a ruth­less in­ter­ga­lac­ war game of­ten played for se­ri­ous mon­ey. The per­for­mance records, readily re­played, rep­re­sent 870 hours worth of stra­te­gic real-time play at var­i­ous skill lev­els, the re­search­ers said.

Us­ing com­plex sta­tis­ti­cal mod­el­ing, they dis­tilled mean­ing from the co­los­sal com­pila­t­ion of in­forma­t­ion about how play­ers re­sponded to their op­po­nents and how long they took to re­act.

“After around 24 years of age, play­ers show slow­ing in a meas­ure of cog­ni­tive speed that is known to be im­por­tant for per­for­mance,” said psy­chol­o­gy doc­tor­al stu­dent Joe Thomp­son, the lead au­thor of the stu­dy, which is his the­sis. “This cog­ni­tive per­for­mance de­cline is pre­s­ent even at high­er lev­els of skil­l.”

But “old­er play­ers, though slower, seem to com­pen­sate by em­ploy­ing sim­pler strate­gies and us­ing the game’s in­ter­face more ef­fi­cient­ly,” he added. For ex­am­ple, he said, old­er play­ers more readily use short-cut and soph­is­t­icated com­mand keys.

The find­ings, he added, sug­gest “that our cog­ni­tive-mo­tor ca­pa­ci­ties are not sta­ble across our adult­hood, but are con­stantly in flux… our day-to-day per­for­mance is a re­sult of the con­stant in­ter­play be­tween change and adapta­t­ion.”

Thomp­son said this study does­n’t tell us how our in­creas­ingly dis­tract­ing com­pu­ter­ized world may ul­ti­mately af­fect our use of adaptive be­hav­iors to com­pen­sate for de­clin­ing cog­ni­tive mo­tor skills. But he did say our in­creas­ingly dig­i­tized world is pro­vid­ing a grow­ing wealth of “big data” that will be a gold mine for fu­ture social-science stud­ies such as this one.


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It’s a hard pill to swallow, but if you’re over 24 years of age you’ve already peaked in terms of cognitive-motor performance—speed in executing decisions, a study of video game players suggests. But, the study found, older players seem to compensate for the decline by using smarter strategies. Researchers at Simon Fraser University in British Columbia describe the study in a new paper in the research journal PLoS One. They analyzed performance records of 3,305 players, aged 16 to 44, of StarCraft 2—a ruthless intergalactic war game often played for serious money. The performance records, readily replayed, represent 870 hours worth of strategic real-time play at various skill levels, the researchers said. Using complex statistical modeling, they distilled meaning from the colossal compilation of information about how players responded to their opponents and how long they took to react. “After around 24 years of age, players show slowing in a measure of cognitive speed that is known to be important for performance,” said psychology doctoral student Joe Thompson, the lead author of the study, which is his thesis. “This cognitive performance decline is present even at higher levels of skill.” But “older players, though slower, seem to compensate by employing simpler strategies and using the game’s interface more efficiently,” he added. For example, he said, older players more readily use short-cut and sophisticated command keys. The findings, he added, suggest “that our cognitive-motor capacities are not stable across our adulthood, but are constantly in flux… our day-to-day performance is a result of the constant interplay between change and adaptation.” Thompson said this study doesn’t tell us how our increasingly distracting computerized world may ultimately affect our use of adaptive behaviors to compensate for declining cognitive motor skills. But he did say our increasingly digitized world is providing a growing wealth of “big data” that will be a gold mine for future social-science studies such as this one.