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:
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.