A pair of studies from Brown University has investigated how video game players develop their skills, and that could have a benefit for students and teachers. The study looked at two very different games, the shooter Halo: Reach, and the strategy game StarCraft 2.

“The great thing about game data is that it’s naturalistic, there’s a ton of it, and it’s really well measured,” said study lead author Jeff Huang. “It gives us the opportunity to measure patterns for a long period of time over a lot of people in a way that you really can’t do in a lab.”

In the case of Halo, they found that the players who improved the most over the seven months of data they used in the study were those who played the video game frequently but did so with breaks. Though there was some skill loss with these breaks, when they were kept short, say a day or two, that loss was regained in a single play session, while longer breaks took longer to recover. However, the players who took breaks saw a greater overall increase in skill than those who “crammed.”

Researchers have known for a long time that taking breaks is a good idea, which is one reason educators suggest that students study over the course of a semester instead of cramming just before exams. While the details of playing Halo and studying biology may differ, the study might open some further doors, since researchers now have a somewhat better understanding of how taking breaks helps in information retention.

In the StarCraft study, they found that players who effectively used “hotkeys,” customized keyboard commands to issue orders within the game, had a tendency to “warm up” by issuing such commands even when they weren’t needed. This allowed them to react more calmly when the game got more stressful. All of the game’s elite players used hotkeys, but it was those who warmed up that were the best.

“They’re getting their minds and bodies into the routines that they’ll need when they’re at peak performance later in the game,” Huang said.

The concept of warming up might be a little harder to work into broad education policy, but the idea of giving students some practice problems to work through before an exam—allowing them to warm up their math muscles, for example—could help to organically improve test scores and help students better deal with test anxiety.

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