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I've just watched a TED talk by Daphne Bavelier, who seems to be a major researcher on plasticity and video games. In it she presents results from a controlled lab study in which participants needed to perform mental rotations (around 14 minutes into the video), before and after having played 10 hours of action video games over a period of 2 weeks. She demonstrates results which show an improvement up to 5 months after having gotten the 'training'.

Improvement of spatial rotations chart

I'm interested in finding out more about this research and the methodologies it followed. So my first question is whether somebody could link me to the original research.

  • Did they take into account learning effects?
  • Did they use a control group?

My skepticism comes from a previous question on video games in which D. Bavelier is mentioned often. It has gotten some concerned responses involving methodological flaws.

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For starters, the 3D blocks used (and the concept of mental rotation) seem to originate from Shepard & Metzler (1971) –  Steven Jeuris Nov 19 '12 at 21:21
This Bachelor's thesis by Mika Hirvasoja (2004) provides an overview of past research on "Improving Spatial Skills Through Computer Games". I didn't find the particular study demonstrated. –  Steven Jeuris Nov 19 '12 at 21:31
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1 Answer

up vote 3 down vote accepted

The concept of mental rotation was introduced by Shepard & Metzler (1971). The 3D assemblages of cubes were part of their original experiment. Vandenburg and Kuse (1978) later developed a paper-and-pencil test based on this prior experiment, named the Vandenberg and Kuse’s Mental Rotation Test (VMRT).

The study which Bavelier most likely refers to is one done by Feng et al. (2007). [PDF]

In Experiment 2, we compared spatial attention and cognition in men and women before and after 10 hr of action-video-game training. A control group trained for 10 hr with a non-action game. [...] In addition, we assessed higher-level spatial abilities using a mental rotation test (MRT; see Fig. 1b). We expected to find enhanced MRT performance as a by-product of improvements in spatial attentional capacity after training.

The games played were Medal of Honor: Pacific Assault by the experimental group, and Ballance, a 3-D puzzle game by the control group.

We had not originally planned a follow-up testing session; however, we were able to contact and retest all 20 subjects after an average interval of about 5 months (16–24 weeks).


Both males and females in the experimental group improved, but there was no significant change from pretest to posttest in the control group [...] furthermore, the improvement in the experimental group was larger for females (2.0 to 2.7) than for males (2.9 to 3.2), F(1, 8) 5 5.193, prep 5 .87, Z 2 5 .39, and the performance of the females on the posttest was indistinguishable from that of the males in the control group. Although the gender difference on the MRT was not eliminated, its size was much reduced (see Fig. 3, lower left panel).

Although not the exact study which Bavelier demonstrated, a study done by Isabelle D. Cherney (2008) demonstrates similar results using the VMRT test. A huge section of the paper reviews existing relevant research which might be interesting to look into. The focus of this particular study is to ...

... examine whether the type (3-D vs. 2-D) and delivery (massed vs. distributed practice) affect the degree of improvement of males’ and females’ mental rotation performance and how individual differences such as anxiety, prior spatial experiences such as computer game play, and mathematical performance might affect performance. Two existing visuospatial tests, Vandenberg and Kuse’s (1978) mental rotation test and the card rotation test (CRT; Educational Testing Services Sanders et al. 1982) that have shown gender differences and that are of different levels of difficulty, were used.

Tested games were The 3-D Antz© racing computer game, the 2-D Tetrus© computer game, or several paper-and-pencil logic games.

An equal number of men and women were then randomly assigned to [the games] for a half hour. Participants returned to the laboratory for another three times for 1 h of practice each. About half of the participants in each practice condition were randomly exposed to either: (a) distributed practice sessions (they completed the three 1-h practice sessions over more than 2 weeks) or (b) massed practice sessions (they completed the three 1-h practice sessions within 3 days). During the final session, after a half hour of practice, participants completed the two mental rotation tests as a posttest. Participants were exposed to a total of four training hours. They were asked to abstain to play any computer games between the practice sessions.

Practice effect analyses

Bonferroni adjusted paired sample t-tests on both mental rotation pre-and posttest scores showed that, for the VMRT there were significant improvements for women, t(30)=−3.6, p=.001, but not for men

VMRT practice effect results

Shepard, R. N., & Metzler, J. (1971). Mental rotation of three-dimensional objects. Science 171, 701-703.
Steven, G. V., & ALLAN, R. (1978). Mental rotations, a group test of three-dimensional spatial visualization. Perceptual and motor skills, 47(2), 599-604.
Cherney, I. D. (2008). Mom, let me play more computer games: They improve my mental rotation skills. Sex Roles, 59(11), 776-786.
Feng, J., Spence, I., & Pratt, J. (2007). Playing an action video game reduces gender differences in spatial cognition. Psychological Science, 18(10), 850-855. [PDF]

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The graph looks like the effect is significant for women.. –  Oriesok Vlassky Nov 20 '12 at 10:52
@OriesokVlassky That's something that has been measured in many previous studies as well. The effect of practice always seems to have a bigger effect on women. I recall reading about possible explanations e.g. boys when growing up playing with more 'mechanical' toys which have a more positive effect on mental rotation. If you are interested in the gender differences, both referenced papers go into great detail into this issue, but that wasn't what I was after when reading these papers. –  Steven Jeuris Nov 20 '12 at 11:17
The statistics in the Feng et al. study seem rather weak, I guess. For example, in Experiment 2 no significant interaction between group and time was reported, which normally should be necessary to interpret a group specific group effect, right? Nevertheless, they do interpret the effects of video gaming... –  H.Muster Nov 20 '12 at 13:04
I just checked out what the Ballance game looked like, and I'm a bit puzzled about why they chose this game as a control group now. The pencil-and-paper logic games in the second study seem to be a better control group to me. –  Steven Jeuris Nov 20 '12 at 13:36
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