Women in Math, Science, and Engineering, and Playing Video Games

There's a fair amount of evidence that spatial reasoning abilities and spatial attention are an important constituent of secondary math skills (basically everything after basic algebra)(1), and it stands to reason that secondary math skills are an important determinant of success in math-heavy careers. There's also a pretty large body of evidence that, on average, females perform worse than males on spatial reasoning and spatial attention tasks (e.g., the classic mental rotation task), and this difference is often taken to be one of the major factors in sex differences in math ability(2). It's almost certainly the case that there's an innate component to spatial reasoning abilities, but it's not clear how much, and in what way, environmental factors influence spatial reasoning abilities (and therefore indirectly, math ability).

If there are in fact some observable environmental variables that effect of spatial reasoning ability, then discovering them could help bridge the math-ability gap between males and females, particularly if exposure to those variables differs between males and females. This could, in turn, help provide long-term cultural and educational solutions to the gender gap in math-heavy fields.

All of that provided the motivation for a study by Feng et al.(3), published in October's issue of Psychological Science. To look at possible environmental influences on spatial reasoning, and spatial attention in particular, they picked a common spatial reasoning task that shows large gender differences in exposure: first person shooter video games. Previous research has shown that females are much less likely to play first person shooters than males, and that people who do play first person shooters tend to have greater spatial reasoning abilities than those who don't(4). However, since previous research hadn't looked at the causal role of playing video games, it could just be that people with better spatial reasoning abilities choose to play first person shooters more often.

In their first study, Feng et al. replicated the previous findings by having male and female participants take part in a uniform field of view task. This task involves first presenting a spatial array like this one (from Feng et al. Fig 1a, p. 851):


The stimulus is presented for a really short period of time (10-30 ms), and contains a bunch of distractors (the empty squares) and one target (the filled square). Participants have to indicate on which of the spokes the target appeared. This is a pretty widely used task, and is thought to be a good measure of spatial attention: the better you are at indicating the spoke on which the target appeared, the better your spatial attention abilities.

Feng et al. found that video game players (self-reported) performed much better than non-players (77% accuracy for players, 58% for non-players). They also found that males outperformed females on this task when they had little video game experience (64% for males, 52% females), but among players, the gender difference disappeared. That is, female participants who played video games performed as well as male participants. Perhaps also relevant to the topic of women in math, science, and engineering, they also found that science majors (72%) performed better than "arts" majors (63%).

As with previous studies, this first study doesn't really tell you the causal direction: do video game players become players because they have better spatial skills, or does playing video games improve spatial skills? Feng et al.'s second study approached this question more directly. They divided 20 participants (6 male, 14 female) who reported little or no first-person shooter experience into two conditions. In one condition, the participants played a first-person shooter (Medal of Honor: Pacific Assault, which is really fun) for 10 hours over a period of up to four weeks. In the second condition, participants played Ballance, a 3D puzzle game, for the same amount of time.

Prior to playing the video games, all participants performed the uniform field of view task from the first study, and once again, males outperformed females (68% to 55%). For the participants in the Ballance condition, this difference remained after the 10 hours of playing, and five months later as well. For the participants in the Medal of Honor condition, however, the difference all but disappeared (males 78%, females 72%, which was not a statistically significant difference, though the power for this comparison has to be pretty low, so it's hard to know how significant that difference really is). After five months, both the males and females in this condition performed at their post-playing level.

What does this say? Clearly, even a small amount of experience with an attention-demanding spatial task like playing a first-person shooter can affect spatial attention abilities, and the effects can be long lasting. More research will have to be conducted, of course, with larger samples and (preferably) at different ages, but these results are suggestive. It implies that one potentially important environmental variable, video games, can have a real impact on spatial abilities, and since these in turn affect math abilities, they can also affect a person's affinity for math-related careers. Since video games that require a lot of spatial reasoning and attention tend to be designed and marketed for males, these results also suggest a major social factor in gender differences in math, and gender disparities in math careers.

1 Casey M.B. (1996). Understanding individual differences in spatial ability within females: A nature/nurture interactionist framework. Developmental Review, 16(3), 241-260; Geary, D.C., Saults, S.J., Liu, F., & Hoard, M.K. (2000). Sex differences in spatial cognition, computational fluency, and arithmetical reasoning. Journal of Experimental Child Psychology, 77, 337-353; Hyde, J.S., Fennema, E., & Lamon, S.J. (1990). Gender differences in mathematics performance: A meta-analysis. Psychological Bulletin, 2, 139-155; and Casey, M.B., Nuttall, R.L., Pezaris, E. (1997). Mediators of gender differences in mathematics college entrance test scores: a comparison of spatial skills with internalized beliefs and anxieties. Developmental Psychology, 33(4), 669-680.
2E.g., Casey, Nuttal, & Pezaris (1997).
3Feng, J., Spence, I., & Pratt, J. (2007). Playing an action video game reduces gender differences in spatial cognition. Psychological Science, 18(10), 850-855.
4Quaiser-Pohl, C., Geiser, C., & Lehmann, W. (2006). The relationship between computer-game preference, gender, and mental-rotation ability. Personality and Individual Differences, 40, 609-619.

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Nearly off-topic but may be not entirely.
Have you seen this at a more reputable location than in the press: The Right Brain vs Left Brain test

Putting aside the ill-defined folk psychology about the "properties" of the right v/s left brain, doesn't this kind of test highlight major differences in the processing of spatial information among individuals.
Has it been run on various populations, male/female, educated/non educated, artistic/scientific, etc...

By Kevembuangga (not verified) on 17 Oct 2007 #permalink

I'm really sorry I don't have a reference for this, but I know that there was a study that compared the male/female difference in spatial reasoning across socio-economic class. In middle and/or high class groups, there was a difference as has been typically reported. In lower class groups, there was no difference, and both groups performed as well as the girls in the higher class groups. The authors suggested that environmental factors play the biggest role in the spatial reasoning gender difference -- higher class people have access to toys and activities (and video games) that can improve spatial reasoning skills, and boys are more typically exposed to these activities than girls are. When those factors are taken away in the lower class, both genders perform the same.

Regardless of whether there is an innate difference in spatial ability for men and women, I think it's a shame that there exist so many barriers for women in math and science from day one. Girls who are interested in "masculine" toys and activities usually don't get access to them as readily. Lone women who enter male-dominated fields lack role models and are discriminated against. And then scientific fields even more so than other kinds of fields are very poorly set up for leaves of absence or part-time options for women to have children.

By Katherine (not verified) on 18 Oct 2007 #permalink

For any cognitive ability, you really have to follow up years or decades later to see if the impact of training lasts. Five months is suggestive, but your muscles will stay semi-toned five months after you stop working out -- doesn't mean it lasts into the future future. For example, Head Start has transient effects on IQ, but by adulthood (~ age 18) the effects are zero.

We also have to bear in mind that most people credit visualization or mental rotation as the necessary skill for tough math and science, not spatial attention or perception. These skills are correlated of course, but to maximally close the gap, we'd want to improve the key skills.

I'd be happy if playing video games closed the gap somewhat, but on the other hand, it wouldn't mend relations between the sexes: females would grow resentful that, just to tread water with males on visual skills, they had to "work out" an hour or so a day. Ever tell a female that you can down two pints of Haagen Dazs and just sleep off the calories? Watch out!

The idea that video games targeted at boys, per se, causes any gap is off, of course, since FPS games were only popular at most 15 years ago when Doom came out, and only massively popular in the past 10 years when Goldeneye came out. The commenter above is also off that class diffs are due to access to video games and toys -- ever been to a toy store or electronics store? It's mostly working class or middle class people blowing their pay check. If you went to an elite boarding school vs. a working class high school, where would the percentage of video game addicts be greater?

The coolest result in this post is that those who are good at FPS have better spatial skills -- that suggests that humans became smarter after we started hunting with more sophisticated technology like bows & arrows, spears, and other projectiles. The physics of hitting a moving target while you're also moving is really tough.

Tis interesting in several ways. First I find it not very convincing
that very high speed recognition of spatial features, as opposed to more leisurly scene analysis would be important for math. I suspect FPS games mainly train rapid recognition and response to visually percieved threats. How well is this targeted at math important skills?

If in fact we can create some sort of brain workout that improves key abilities, that would be an important advance, irregardless of its effect on the male/female gap. Past claims that listening to Mozart enhanced IQ have been refuted.

Hah, how come I kicked your ass at Halo 3? I love video games. They are my passion.

All this hand-wringing over performance differences between girls and boys is mostly silly. If girls were outperforming boys on some task, would we be worrying whatsoever? Would anyone even care?

The fact is girls are doing better in most disciplines in college than boys now, and yet the possibility of losing a large portion of this generation's young men to a life of ignorance doesn't seem to keep the academic elite awake at night.

It's all politics and it's infection of grant institutions is disturbing.

By Cog Scientist (not verified) on 20 Oct 2007 #permalink

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