Porknite! Fun-loving pigs learn video games

Swine-craft: pigs play with mouth-operated joysticks. © Eston Martz

Do video games improve intelligence? Scientists have used them to teach pigs about rules and rewards. Research on humans shows gaming can enhance memory, spatial awareness and multitasking.

Hamlet moved the cursor to collide with the wall. A “bloop” sound rang out: level complete.

His game may look basic compared to Call of Duty. But Hamlet is not the average gamer. He is a Yorkshire pig.

In a recent experiment into animal intelligence, psychologists from Purdue University in Indiana taught Hamlet and three other hogs to play a simple video game. The pigs passed with aplomb.

The chance of a pig logging onto Fortnite is, for the moment, low. But the research opens up intriguing possibilities. If playing games can refine a pig’s intelligence, could it also improve our own?

Video games have often been regarded as the mental equivalent of a fizzy drink. The stereotypical gamer is lazy, unfit and glued to the screen. Gaming has been called an addiction and accused of encouraging violence.

It is far from the first time people have attacked a young cultural form. Critics in the 18th Century saw novels as a waste of time and worried that their readers would confuse fact and fiction. Today, many of the same books form the basis of entire university courses.

Some suggest we should start to look at video games with similar resect. A throng of studies has shown that games appear to boost the workings of our mind.

Tests have found that gamers are more capable of multitasking and that they become better at estimating numbers and volume. Dozens of papers show that gaming can increase our attention span, broaden our peripheral vision and improve our memory.

A growing strand of thought suggests that they can become useful educational tools, worth deploying in the classroom. According to development psychologist Douglas Gentile, games can be “powerful teachers that we can harness.”

Not everyone shares his optimism. For Philip Zimbardo, any benefits gaming has for fluid intelligence are offset by the damage to other types of thinking, such as emotional intelligence and the ability to deal with complicated real-world problems.

There is also nothing to suggest that video games are unique in their mind-enhancing abilities. Similar effects have been observed among players of chess – a board game with ancient origins. People who learn a new language often get better at logic puzzles. And one 1993 study even claimed that listening to Mozart enhances spatial reasoning.

For all the studies conducted, a lot is still unknown. There are now tens of thousands of games, in dozens of genres. Minecraft is nothing like League of Legends and might have very different effects. As neuroscientist Daphne Bavelier put it, “there are good sugars and bad sugars”. Games could be the same.

Do video games improve intelligence?

Brain training

Without a doubt, say some. There is a reason that some thinkers believe games should be used in schools. The crushing volume of evidence links gaming to spatial awareness, problem-solving, attention span and memory: all aspects of our intelligence. People who continue to call games bad for the brain are either out of touch or prejudiced against the new.

Others say we cannot be so sure. Although many studies have claimed that some games develop particular functions of our mind, none has persuasively found that video games as a whole increase our general cleverness. Time spent playing them might stunt the sorts of intelligence required for real-life situations. And other activities, from reading to chess, might refine our brain more efficiently.

You Decide

  1. Pigs are more intelligent than dogs. Why do we treat them so differently?
  2. Is learning more valuable the more difficult it is to acquire?

Activities

  1. Working in groups, develop an idea for an educational video game. Create a presentation pitching it to a teacher as a learning resource.
  2. Write a short story from the perspective of someone who finds themselves living within a video game.

Some People Say...

“The mind is not a vessel to be filled but a fire to be kindled.”

Plutarch (46 — c.119), Ancient Greek historian and essayist

What do you think?

Q & A

What do we know?
Scientists and psychologists agree that there are numerous correspondences between humans and other mammals. We share more than 90 of our DNA with advanced primates like chimpanzees and gorillas. Our brains and the ways in which we can use them are also similar: experiments have shown that pigs can use tools, monkeys value fairness and rats can help each other out, traits historically regarded as uniquely human.
What do we not know?
Much remains unknown as to how and why the human brain differs from that of other mammals. Biologists long believed that humans possess more brain cells and that our cerebral cortex — the part of the brain responsible for higher cognition — is disproportionally large. Recent research by the neuroscientist Suzana Herculano-Houzel, however, has suggested both of these are similar to other mammals, and that our brain is more complex simply because of its overall size.

Word Watch

Aplomb
Self-possession in a tricky situation. It derives from “a plumb line”, a weight suspended from a string used since Ancient Egypt to ensure builders are constructed vertically.
Violence
Though the idea that video games lead to violence has been disproven by numerous studies, it remains pervasive. In 2019, for instance, former US president Donald Trump blamed them for mass shootings.
Novels
Although fiction is much older, the novel in its present form emerged in 18th Century Europe.
Throng
A big, densely packed crowd, derived from an Old English verb for forcing one’s way.
Philip Zimbardo
American psychologist famous for the controversial 1971 Stanford prison experiment, in which volunteers acted as prisoners and officers in a mock prison.
Fluid intelligence
The ability to solve new problems. Psychologist Raymond Cattell contrasted it with crystallised intelligence – the knowledge gained through experience.
Chess
Chess originated in India. In 1061, Saint Peter Damien (1007 — c.1072) denounced chess for its evil effects on society.
Mozart
A 1993 study found that listening to Mozart can improve a few very specific tasks. Exaggerated in the press, it inspired thousands of parents to make their children listen to his music.
Spatial reasoning
The skills involved in thinking about objects and how they move in three-dimensional space.
Slothful
Lazy. In Christianity, sloth is one of the seven deadly sins, and also encompasses states of boredom and indifference.

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