In gaming, cognitive skills are of utmost importance for top-tier esports mental performance. These skills are like many other game skills, in the sense that they can be practiced and improved upon. Researchers have theorized that gamers might in fact demonstrate better cognitive performance in certain areas due to training and practice.
Previous studies have shown that action video game players (AVGPs) have improved cognitive abilities compared to non-action video game players (nAVGP); specifically, improved allocation of visual attention, more efficient visual searching, improved cognitive flexibility, improved interference control, and greater impulsive control. However, these findings are not without controversy. Research shows that AVGPs outperform nAVGPs in terms of cognitive flexibility, but video game training does not produce significant effects on the ability to rapidly switch between two tasks in nAVGPs. Some studies have found smaller task-switching costs in AVGPs, while others have not found significant differences between the two groups.
This study by Li et al. details the relationship between executive functioning and action video game experience. Executive functioning refers to the ability to control and coordinate cognitive processes, such as attention, memory, and problem-solving. Studies have measured executive functioning in terms of cognitive flexibility, response-congruency effects, and impulsive control.
Cognitive flexibility is measured by task-switching cost, or the amount of effort it takes to switch between two tasks. Studies have shown conflicting results on whether action video game players (AVGPs) have better cognitive flexibility than non-AVGPs.
Response-congruency effects refer to the ability to resolve response conflict, or to reconcile conflicting pieces of data and draw a conclusion. This effect is often studied in the context of the Stroop color test, part of which involves individuals identifying the color in which a word is written, while the word itself is the name of a different color (e.g. the world “purple” written in a yellow font color). There is limited research on the relationship between response-congruency effects and action video game experience, with inconsistent results being reported. Some studies have found that AVGPs have smaller response-congruency effects, while others have found no differences between AVGPs and non-AVGPs.
Impulsive control refers to the ability to inhibit inappropriate responses to a stimulus. This can be in the context of physical action or emotional reaction. Some studies have found that AVGPs have better impulsive control than non-AVGPs, while others have found no differences.
There are a number of potential limitations to previous studies on the relationship between executive functioning and action video game experience, such as mainly categorizing participants based on time spent playing video games instead of considering the type of video game played. Overall, the evidence on the relationship between executive functioning and action video game experience is inconsistent.
In this study, researchers investigated the relationship between gaming skills and executive functioning. The study focuses specifically on League of Legends. Researchers examined whether players with a high ranking in LoL have better executive function in the categories named above compared to average players after controlling for time spent on the game. Researchers utilized a Stroop-switching test, which measures cognitive flexibility by measuring response times and error rates during task switching.
The Stroop-switching test involved participants switching between two tasks: color-naming and word-reading, and was presented with congruent, incongruent, or neutral target stimuli. The results showed that all participants performed better than chance with error rates lower than 15%. The mean reaction times (RTs) were similar between top and average players, with a longer RT observed in switch trials compared to repeat trials.
The study found that both the top-ranking and average-ranking players in the online game League of Legends showed significant reaction time and error rates when switching tasks in the Stroop switching test. However, the task-switching costs were smaller in the group of top-ranking players. The researchers found that the advantage in cognitive flexibility of the top-ranking players cannot be explained by the speed-accuracy trade-off, as these players showed overall fewer errors compared to average-ranking players.
The results are in line with previous studies that have linked better action video gaming skills to improved executive control abilities, such as cognitive flexibility. It is unlikely that this result can be attributed solely to extended gaming experience, as there were no differences in gaming tenure and time between top and average players. The researchers suggest that the interplay between game skills and gaming experience may influence the effect of game playing on cognitive flexibility and task-switching performance.
Task-switching costs refer to the time delay in performance that occurs when switching between tasks. The study found that both top players and average players showed smaller task-switching costs when switching from the relatively easier word-reading task to the relatively harder color-naming task compared to the other way around, which contradicts previous results. The study suggests that this unexpected finding may be due to the transparent task cues used in the study, which helped participants focus on the task-relevant feature, or it may be due to the additional task-reconfiguration process that takes longer when switching to a hard task. The study also found that participants showed similar levels of task-switching costs in trials with neutral target stimuli compared to incongruent target stimuli, which could be due to the complexity of the stimuli used in the study that may have attracted attention and delayed the task-set reconfiguration process.
Researchers also found that top-ranking players were more easily able to resolve interference in response selections compared to average-ranking players. The top-ranking players had fewer errors compared to average-ranking players in trials with incongruent targets, but both groups of players responded more slowly in incongruent trials than in neutral trials. The results suggest that top players have a more efficient process for categorizing the relevant target feature, allowing them to respond with higher accuracy in the congruent condition compared to the neutral condition. On the other hand, average players did not show a difference in ER between congruent and neutral conditions and made more mistakes overall. Despite the difference in accuracy, both top and average players had similar RT results and showed delayed responses in congruent trials compared to neutral trials. This suggests that top players have better cognitive ability to resolve task interference but have similar speed of response to average players.
The findings of this study also suggest that top-ranking League of Legends players may have better impulsive control compared to average-ranking players. This was demonstrated by the higher hit rates and lower false alarm rates of top players in the continuous performance test, indicating a better ability to differentiate between targets and non-targets. These results contrast with previous studies that have shown no difference or a worse impulsive control in AVGPs compared to non-AVGPs. The results of this study provide evidence that top-ranking LoL players may possess better impulsive control, a crucial aspect of executive control, that could contribute to their success in the game.
The results of the study suggest two possible interpretations for why some individuals achieve higher rankings and become top players in video games. The first interpretation is that only individuals with superior cognitive abilities, such as cognitive flexibility, interference, and impulsive control, can achieve higher rankings. In other words, video game training and experience may not be the key factor, and all top players may simply be the cognitively gifted individuals. The second interpretation is that cognitive abilities such as cognitive flexibility, interference, and impulsive control can be improved and trained through video game experience for those who have a strong motivation to constantly hone their game skills and earn promotions. This is because winning at the highest level of competition requires players to mobilize a variety of cognitive resources.
The study suggests that players’ motivation towards video games may determine how they impact their cognition. Top players can be highly motivated to get higher rankings in the game, but their motivation may differ from those with video game addiction. Previous studies have shown that game addiction can negatively impact the impact of gaming experience on cognition. Addicted video game players tend to have worse cognitive abilities compared to non-addicted players and non-players.
Future research is needed to investigate the relationship between individual differences in players’ cognitive functions and variances in game skills, as well as the interplay between players’ motivation and the training effect on video games. The results of the study also provide insights for the esports industry, suggesting that performance in similar cognitive experiments could be used as a criterion for selecting professional game players in the future.
Li X, Huang L, Li B, Wang H, Han C. Time for a true display of skill: Top players in League of Legends have better executive control. Acta Psychol (Amst). 2020 Mar;204:103007. doi: 10.1016/j.actpsy.2020.103007. Epub 2020 Jan 27. PMID: 32000064.
The largest collection of gaming-specific health, fitness, and performance information on the internet, brought to you by the experts currently working in the industry with top-tier esport organizations.
Organizations that have benefited from the expertise of our authors include Cloud 9, Team Liquid, 100 Thieves, FNATIC, G2, TSM, and more.