Cognitive Daily

About two weeks ago I engaged in a seemingly pointless exercise in male bonding: I played 24 hours of video games with my son. It turns out, even aside from perfecting my guacamole recipe, the experience may have done me some good.

C. Shawn Green and Daphne Bavelier of the University of Rochester conducted a study in which they found that avid video game players were better at several different visual tasks compared to non-gamers (“Action Video Game Modifies Visual Attention,” Nature, 2003).

I’ll get to the specific tasks they studied a little later, because I want to focus in on the really interesting part of the study: just how much gaming do you need to do in order to improve your vision? In the initial experiment, Green and Bavelier compared gamers who played an hour or more most days for the previous six months to people with little or no game-playing during the same period. They reasoned that avid gamers might not have learned the visual tasks by playing games; they might naturally have been better at them, or their motor-control skills might be better.

To eliminate these potential differences, they conducted a new experiment, using only non-gamers. They pre-tested all the participants on three visual tasks, and then divided them into two groups. One group was “trained” for ten days playing the action game Medal of Honor for one hour a day. The other group played Tetris (whoah! flashback: 1989). The researchers speculated that both groups would develop manual dexterity skills, but only the Medal of Honor players would improve on visual tasks.

After just this short training period, the results came in as predicted: the Medal of Honor players improved significantly in each task (though not quite to the level of the die-hard gamers), while the Tetris group showed no significant improvement.

In the interest of showing off my graphing skills, I want to focus in on the results for two of the visual tasks. The first task was a field of view test. Participants were asked to focus on the center of the screen. Then an object was flashed in their peripheral vision at a distance of 10, 20, or 30 degrees from the focal point. Participants had to indicate where the object had flashed.

In the second task, a series of random black letters blinked in the middle of the screen. At a random interval, a white letter is flashed, and then within the next 8 flashes, an X sometimes appeared. Participants were asked what the white letter was, and if they correctly identified it, then they were asked whether they saw an X afterwards. Most people have an “attentional blink” about 200 to 300 milliseconds after the white letter is displayed, and their reports of whether the X appears are no better than chance. After 700 milliseconds or so, the “blink” is over, and participants are accurate in detecting the X.

Here are the results for both tasks:

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The post-training Medal of Honor group was consistently better than any of the other groups for both tasks. In the field of view task, they were better even for objects that would have been off the video screen when they played the game: the game required only a 10-degree field of view, and this group was significantly better at the task even 30 degrees off-center.

For the flashing letter test, the graph shows that the post-training Medal of Honor group recovered from “attentional blink” much faster than the other groups—even faster than they themselves had done before their training.

After only a short training period, video games can improve performance in related, but different tasks. What remains unclear, and what I do hope Green and Bavelier will study in the future, is why, after 24 hours, I still can’t beat my son in Super Smash Bros.

Comments

  1. #1 ed
    March 12, 2005

    Hmmm.

    That might explain why the soldiers of the current US military are so capable. There has been a lot of conjecture over the past few years on the effect of computer gaming on military recruits. It’s fairly certain that motor and visual skills are improved, but the degree hasn’t been known.

    Another issue is experience and knowledge of tactical situations. Previously this knowledge was gained through basic training and advanced infantry training. But this same level of knowledge is available in almost any reasonably good computer game. A prime example is Full Spectrum Warrior. This game isn’t a twitch-shooter, such as Quake, but a game involving solving tactical problems.

    When I was a kid I played paper wargames, those monstrous maps and thousands of paper counters, but today’s kids play much more interactive games. I think it’s entirely possible that, unknowingly, we’re training America’s children in a level of military success that even the ancient Spartans would be astonished at. It’s even probable that America is only at the very introductory stages of this evolution.

    Currently most games are played in isolation where gamers operate against the computer or a small subset of other gamers, i.e. “LAN parties”. But the emergence of MMO, Massively Multiplayer Online, games presages a situation whereby gamers will be able to engage in full-on squad to battalion level games of increasing complexity. Some of the very first such games (http://planetside.station.sony.com/aftershock/) have come out with even more in the pipeline.

    Frankly it would probably be worth the military’s time and money to produce a full-on MMO combined arms computer game. It’s an interestsing thing to consider that many 10 year olds have now as much tactical knowledge as an infantry recruit did twenty-plus years ago.

  2. #2 Grady
    March 12, 2005

    That’s great, but where are your error bars? ;-)

  3. #3 bryan
    March 13, 2005

    okay, are there any known physical activities that have similar results if done for one hour per day?

  4. #4 Dave Munger
    March 13, 2005

    Grady: error bars would be a little messy on graphs with so many data points. However, I should have said that the only data points where there were a significant difference were the Medal of Honor post-test points, which were significantly different from all the others in the field of vision test, and significantly different at points 4 and 5 in the blinking letter test.

    Brian, I don’t know of any, but I wouldn’t be surprised if there were other ways to improve on these vision tasks.

    Ed, interesting points. I’ve heard that’s what the “America’s Army” game is all about, though it’s not multiplayer, is it?

  5. #5 DrSteve
    March 14, 2005

    America’s Army is multiplayer, though not massively so. The training modules are single-player.

  6. #6 Josh
    March 14, 2005

    The MOH series is terrible btw. I’d go with BF1942/nam.

    Anyway, this is cool.

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  9. #9 Kathleen Meyer
    October 2, 2005

    My 13 yr. old son is doing a PJAS project testing the effect of video gaming on manual dexterity. I am a Occupational Therapist and I have suggested use a standardized testing tool called the Purdue Pegboard for both pre and post testing. Do you have any suggestions, comment and/or advice for conducting this experiment. Thank you. Kathleen Meyer

  10. #10 Dave Munger
    October 2, 2005

    Sounds like an interesting project! I would suggest having your son go to the library to get a copy of the original paper, which was published in the journal Nature. Here’s a link to the abstract. He could attempt to use a similar method to Green and Bavelier’s for his project. It will be difficult reading for a 13-year-old, but if he’s serious about this project, he should be able to get through it.

  11. #11 Josh
    October 20, 2005

    Has this shown to actually improve vision? For example somebody with 20/30 improving to 20/20?

  12. #12 Dave Munger
    October 21, 2005

    Josh, no it does not improve visual acuity. However, there are other aspects to vision besides acuity—the specific traits it improves are discussed in the article.

  13. #13 zi
    December 7, 2005

    hi everyone, i was doing some spring cleaning and trying to get rid of all the gaming stuff I accumulated through my years as a teenager. I didn’t want to throw that stuff out and I thought back to some ideas I had when I was in college about setting up a non-profit org to give games to children or senior citizens.

    I had long known that videogames provided lots of cognitive benefits (i used the same argument on my folks to get my first Nintendo system!). The AARP has a webpage referencing a Nature article, where researchers learned that gaming seniors experienced a 30% increase in cognitive functions like shape recognition and reactin time. (unfortunately, i don’t have an acct at Nature, so i can only read the AARP synopsis):
    http://www.aarp.org/learntech/computers/comp_news/a2003-06-09-videogames.html

    The US ARMY recruits heavily in videogame and computer magazines. Whatever you may think of the fiasco in Iraq and Bush’s handling of affairs over there, the ARMY are no dummies. They want people who play games because they can process loads of information faster and better than non-gamers, and have extremely short reaction times. Anyone who has played a shooting game online with some of these guys will attest to that. I had my butt handed to me within seconds! Quick assesment of threats, situational awareness, decision making, and accuracy are all things being honed in these games. Recruiting gamers is like getting free, pre-trained soldiers!

    If anyone is interested in helping me get my non-profit idea off the ground, feel free to contact me at:

    pogo747 the-at-symbol yahoo.com

  14. #14 Jackey
    October 30, 2007

    Recently, I purchased some latest video games from Target store at Couponalbum.com…………It is also my favorite shopping site for shopping………..!!

  15. #15 Gracchus
    March 30, 2009

    While there can be some benefits to playing video games, I do have to play the spoiler in this blog. Now before you ‘tune me out’, understand that I have worked in both the animation and video game industry for several years.

    First off, people are spending too much time playing video games (thats right, I work in the industry, but I’m telling you that you play too much). Why too much?

    Look at the obesity rates around the world. They rise in direct correlation to the amount of ‘screen time’ (TV/Internet/Video Games) people have. Remember, obesity is the number one health problem facing virtually every western nation in the world.

    Excessive gaming also leads to other health problems including anti-social behavior, back problems, not to mention that success in school is often compromised.

    One father, in this very blog, talks about playing video games with his son for a ’24 hour period’. Get real (Pardon the pun)…but seriously, do something else with your kid.

    Oh, and if you really want to increase your visual perception skills, try animation. And for those of you who think video games are making better soldiers, ask yourself why when we make video games, the main characters are always fit and trim?

    Don’t stop playing (please, I need a paycheck) but I think the last thing needed is a justification, especially a health one, to play more games. Go outside.

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