Last year we discussed a great deal of research about the gender disparity in math and science. Even while women are more successful overall in school than men, in certain fields there is a very large deficit in the number of women participating. We mentioned one explanation in particular:
The male math advantage in a number of different studies appears to be directly related to visuospatial skills, the most important being mental rotation. In tests on calculation or other mathematical problems that don’t require visuospatial skills, females perform just as well as — or better than — males.
What’s more, at least one study has found that it’s possible to teach these visuospatial skills. Such a course has been offered at Michigan Tech for many years, and students taking the course have not only shown measurable improvement on visuospatial tests, they have gotten better grades in subsequent engineering and graphics courses.
But where did men acquire these superior skills in the first place? One possible answer is video games. While obviously video games weren’t available to boys more than about 30 years ago, prior to that, boys may have acquired similar skills through male-dominated sports like baseball and hunting.
Shortly after our report, Jing Feng, Ian Spence, and Jay Pratt found that men and women who played action video games for more than four hours per week showed no disparity in one test of visuospatial ability, a Field of Vision task where they had to spot a dot flashing for 1/100 of a second in their peripheral vision. They were significantly better than men or women who didn’t play action games. But male non-players were still better than females.
Could video game training erase this gender gap?
Feng’s team recruited 20 new students with no gaming experience. All the students were tested with the same task and a mental rotation task, and placed in pairs scoring similarly. One member of each pair was trained in a violent action game — Medal of Honor: Pacific Assault, while the other member was trained with Ballance, a 3-D puzzle game. They played their respective games for ten hours over a four-week period, then tested again. Here are the results for the field of vision task:
While men scored better than women before training, after playing Medal of Honor both women and men improved significantly. The difference between males and females after the training was not significant — the gap between women and men was almost completely erased. Even more impressively, the researchers retested both groups five months later and found that both groups were still performing as well as they had right after training. The group playing Ballance showed no significant gains.
There were comparable results for the Mental Rotation task, which also remained in effect five months later.
So, could encouraging girls to play action video games actually improve their math and science skills? It’s certainly a possibility. It’s intriguing that not just any game will improve these skills — even a three-dimensional puzzle game didn’t help; only the serious life-and-death action game seemed to work. But I think another step is needed before we start promoting Halo as the answer to all sex discrimination — these effects need to be extended to academic skills themselves. It’s possible that playing these games only increases a few key spatial abilities without affecting the underlying reasoning skills.
And, as we pointed out last year, there are social and institutional problems that may also affect women’s success in math and science.
Finally, I’d be interested to know if there are any games out there that improve visuospatial skills without all that violence. Girls might be more interested in those games, the games wouldn’t have the adverse affects of violence, and everyone would be interested in seeing girls improve on the key abilities to help them succeed in math and science.
Feng, J., Spence, I., Pratt, J. (2007). Playing an Action Video Game Reduces Gender Differences in Spatial Cognition. Psychological Science, 18(10), 850-855. DOI: 10.1111/j.1467-9280.2007.01990.x