Cognitive Daily

ResearchBlogging.orgWhen we’re in a crowded space, making visual judgments becomes more difficult. But it doesn’t take much to trigger a crowding effect. Clicking on the picture below will take you to a quick movie (QuickTime required) that should demonstrate the effect. Focus on the cross to the left, then start the movie (it may start automatically, depending on your browser). In two seconds, a “T” will flash briefly on the right side of the screen. Your job is to determine whether the T is upright or inverted (upside-down). After another two seconds, three Ts will appear. This time, you must judge only the middle T, which appears in the same place as the first T you judged.

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If you don’t get the hang of it the first time you watch, go ahead and watch the movie one more time — but no more! Which T was more difficult to judge? Because the second T was “crowded” by the other two, it should be more difficult for most people. The two polls below should indicate whether we found the effect — I’ll give the correct answers at the end of this post.

It’s difficult, isn’t it? So, is there any way to improve our performance in these crowded situations? C.S. Green and D. Bavelier have conducted several studies on video games and vision (here’s one we’ve discussed), finding that action games improve vision in a number of different ways. Can games help on the crowding task?

Green and Bavelier tested 14 avid gamers and 14 non-gamers, all males, on a task similar to the one I demonstrated above. First they tested viewers on Ts alone, showing progressively smaller Ts until responses were no longer accurate. Even on this task, with no crowding, the gamers were able to respond accurately to smaller Ts than non-gamers. For the crowding task, each viewer was tested on objects at the center of the visual field, 10° from the center, or 25° from the center. The Ts used in this task were 1.5 times larger than the smallest T each individual viewer could accurately judge alone. The three Ts were moved progressively closer together until, again, respondents failed to answer correctly.

[Actually the researchers used a "staircase" design, which means that when an answer was correct, the next set of Ts would be closer together. When it was wrong, the next set was farther apart. Eventually each viewer settled in on a point where he was alternating between correct and incorrect responses]

Here are the results:

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No matter how far from the center of the visual field the Ts appeared, the gamers could judge them in more crowded conditions than the non-gamers.

But perhaps people with better vision are simply more likely to become avid gamers, since good vision might make them more likely be be good at the games. So Green and Bavelier recruited 32 students who were non-gamers and gave them a shorter version of the same test. Then the students practiced either on Unreal Tournament or Tetris for a four- to six-week period, a total of 30 hours of game play. After training, those who had played Unreal Tournament scored significantly better on the test, while those who played Tetris showed no improvement. It appears that the video game training was indeed responsible for the improvement in vision.

Even though they’ve found similar results before, the researchers say this result is special because it shows that even when the location of the object viewers are tested on is known in advance, there’s still an improvement in visual ability associated with game play. Where previous studies focused mainly on visual search tasks, this study demonstrates the spatial resolution of vision can also be improved by playing video games. Green and Bavelier suggest that gaming might be used as therapy for older adults whose vision often fades in precisely this domain.

Now, how did our readers do on the crowding task? The first T was upside-down, and the second T was right-side-up, so if we’ve replicated the effect, then “upside-down” should be the most common response to the first question, while for the second poll, responses should be closer to 50-50.

C.S. Green, D. Bavelier (2007). Action-Video-Game Experience Alters the Spatial Resolution of Vision Psychological Science, 18 (1), 88-94 DOI: 10.1111/j.1467-9280.2007.01853.x

Comments

  1. #1 Sharon
    July 17, 2008

    The one problem with this kind of test on a blog is that your audience is going to be made up of people more familiar with technology, and therefore more likely to have played at least some video games.

  2. #2 Dave Munger
    July 17, 2008

    That may be true, Sharon, but at this point we’re already seeing the effect. As of right now, 33 out of 36 got the first (uncrowded) T correct, but only 22 out of 36 got the second (crowded) T correct.

  3. #3 Jenny
    July 17, 2008

    I am usually all about video games and how they’re not bad for you, but for some reason this research drives me crazy. These authors have done lots of research suggesting video games improve spatial attention and other visual skills. I think the problem for me is that they make statements like “playing action video games can alter fundamental characteristics of the visual system, such as the spatial resolution of visual processing…” (this paper) which suggest they’ve literally, physically altered the visual system, but then they never propose a mechanism for how it could possibly happen. Did they change the size of the retinal receptive fields? What exactly did they do, and can we measure that? Sure, just because they can’t explain how it happens doesn’t make their data any less valid. But on some level, I want to hear a proposed mechanism before I spend my weekends playing UT in the hopes of not wearing my glasses anymore.

  4. #4 Abby
    July 18, 2008

    I suspect that the changes they’re hypothesizing are not in the retina itself but higher in the processing chain. It’s pretty well-established that as you move “up the chain” from retinal processing to low-level feature detectors to higher-level processing, the size of receptive fields of cells in each level increases. Face-responsive cells have huge receptive fields; edge-detecting simple cells do not.

    So, they’re probably making claims about how sensitive cells in those higher areas are. People can improve on a lot of visual-discrimination tasks – not just these ones – so something about how responsive/sensitive some neurons are must change with exposure to a particular kind of stimuli.

    I seem to recall that much of the “video games improve spatial/visual skills” data shows, in particular, improved performance in the periphery, and playing something like UT is definitely dependent on your ability to detect and respond to things in the periphery.

  5. #5 TheNerd
    July 18, 2008

    Hmm… Does Second Life count? Because this was surprisingly easy for me, and I’m not much of a “gamer” in the traditional sense.

  6. #6 InnerScientist
    July 19, 2008

    such games are an excellent use of the scientist’s mind… but perhaps more scientists should be getting in touch with their inner motivations instead of honing their cognitive skills.

    a look deep into the soul often reveals a burning desire to become – for example – ninja instead.

  7. #7 drew2287
    July 23, 2008

    Just for the record, this study could have been a lot more thorough, such as taking into account the test subjects’ other daily activities (a frequent driver, for example, would probably have better spatial reasoning and sharper eyes in general when compared to a non-driver) or a myriad of other variables that could influence a subject’s vulnerability to distraction, visual acuity, or hand-eye coordination (a lack of which would make a game like Unreal Tournament much more frustrating for some, and make Tetris a more enjoyable or appropriate game for others, which could affect enthusiasm and aptitude, among other things). This data could easily work to support a larger body of work, because the conclusion is compelling, but to me the answer seems like common sense.

    A video game is essentially a visual interface with simple controls that can be manipulated to influence what appears on the screen. A “good” gamer is one who can effectively judge what’s on the screen and quickly adapt his use of the controls to achieve the specified goal. Sure, there may be demons, ray-guns, or heinous blood splatters involved, or maybe the player has to win a jet-ski race, feed his or her dog, or recreate a musical performance with great speed and accuracy. Whatever the challenge may be, the visual cues and control scheme are integrated in such a way that it becomes a challenge for the player to complete the specified goals. Whatever faculty is being tested, be it a player’s ability click a mouse button quickly, a complicated manipulation of joysticks and button combinations, or (as with the Wii) actual physical movement, each level of the game works to refine their skills and build up to the next challenge. It’s how games work, and it’s why they’re fun.

    Every video game presents a challenge, and anyone who takes the time to experiment with a game’s controls and learn a little about what its designers are trying to demonstrate, will learn something new. Of course a game like Unreal Tournament, a fast-paced, first-person shooter in which gamers compete against each other online, would at least preserve if not improve a person’s capacity for making accurate visual judgments. So would bouncing a rubber ball against a brick wall for a few hours. This may just be my respect for game designers talking, but I’m confident that a team of brilliant writers, designers, artists, and technicians who spend exorbitant amounts of money on developing a complex, entertaining program with a simple, effective way for regular people to interact with it… well, I’m getting carried away, but I’m sure they could produce something more intellectually stimulating than bouncing a rubber ball. But, just for the record, that’s exactly what Pong was, and everyone loves Pong. If you don’t, you should probably be expatriated.

  8. #8 Darlene
    January 6, 2009

    I have lost peripheral vision due to strokes. There is a therapy that MAY improve this, but due to the strokes and loss of vision I am presently unable to work and the $4,000 for MAY work therapy is not feasible at this time.

    A nurse for the Dr. told me that here had been studies indicating that a Ninetndo DS game and a Wii game may benefit people like me. I have the name of the Nintendo game but not the Wii game. Since I have access to Wii I have been trying to find the name of this game. The only name that comes up is Unreal Tournament.

    Can anyone verify that this is the game I am looking for?

  9. #9 meldoy1991
    February 6, 2009

    The article states that Unreal Tournament was used in the study, but it seems that any game that requires the player to rapidly focus on specific parts of the screen would be feasible as therapy. For example, Medal of Honor, a first person shooter, has been used in other studies too.

    Not sure if Unreal Tournament is available as a Wii game though…

    Some other titles that come to mind that seem similar to Unreal Tournament and are available on the Wii are Call of Duty and Resident Evil. And perhaps some other games such as Super Mario Galaxy, Super Paper Mario, or Super Smash Bros. Brawl might work.

    Good luck on recovery. ^^

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