Although they are often criticized for their violent content and tendency to discourage physical exercise, action video games may improve learning skills, according to the results of a recent study.

Previous research has shown that playing action video games improves skills related to those taught in the game. The current study, published online on November 10, 2014, in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, analyzed the effects of these games on general learning skills, beyond those related to gameplay.

To measure learning capacity, the researchers of the study used a perceptual template model.

"In order to sharpen its prediction skills, our brains constantly build models, or 'templates,' of the world," study author Daphne Bavelier, PhD, explained in a press release. "The better the template, the better the performance.”

For the study, visual performance on a pattern discrimination task was compared between participants who played action video games and those who did not. Gamers used a better template to complete the task and outperformed the non-gamers.

In a second experiment, participants with little video game experience were instructed to play video games for 50 hours over a period of 9 weeks. Players were randomly assigned to action video games, such as Call of Duty, or non-action video games, such as The Sims. Participants completed a pattern discrimination task before and after the video game period. The results indicated that those who played action video games improved their templates when compared with those who played non-action games.

For the final stage of the study, the researchers aimed to understand how the video games impact templates and improve learning. Using neural modeling, the researchers found that initially, action video game players performed similarly to non-gamers on a perceptual learning task. However, those who played the action games were better able to learn and adapt to the task as they completed it.

"When they began the perceptual learning task, action video gamers were indistinguishable from non-action gamers; they didn't come to the task with a better template," Dr. Bavelier said in the press release. "Instead, they developed better templates for the task much, much faster, showing an accelerated learning curve."

In addition, the results indicated that the video games had a lasting effect. After a follow-up period of a few months to a year, those who had played action video games in the initial study still outperformed those who played other games.

“Taken together, our results establish for the first time to our knowledge the development of enhanced perceptual templates following action game play,” the study authors wrote. “Because such an improvement can facilitate the inference of the proper generative model for the task at hand, unlike perceptual learning that is quite specific, it thus elucidates a general learning mechanism that can account for the various behavioral benefits noted after action game play.”