Study Finds Action Games Sharpen Vision

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Remember back in the old days when television was universally decried as being bad for the eyes, and complicated diagrams were published in lifestyle magazines about how far away one should sit from the living room television to be “safe?” (Hint: I think it was on the order of 10 feet for a 24-inch CRT color television.) Well, now we’re finding that some video games may actually improve childrens’ health, and now a study from the University of Rochester finds that action video games—you know, first-person shooters—may sharpen players’ vision by as much as 20 percent.

Professor of brain and cognitive science Daphne Bavelier and graduate student Shawn Green tested college students who reported having played few, if any, video games during the last year. (“That alone was pretty tough,” said Green, “nearly everybody on a campus plays video games.”) They asked the students to participate in a crowing test aimed at measuring how quickly they could discern the orientation of a “T” symbol within a crowd of other symbols. The researchers then divided the students into two groups: one played the first-person shooter Unreal Tournament for about an hour a day, while the other group played Tetris for the same amount of time.

After a month of gaming, the researchers re-administered the crowding test. The result: Tetris players showed no improvement (surprising, given all the “T” shapes in Tetris!), but the Unreal Tournament players culd identify the orientation of the “T” symbol more easily than they had a month earlier.

“When people play action games, they’re changing the brain’s pathway responsible for visual processing,” says Bavelier. “These games push the human visual system to the limits and the brain adapts to it. That learning carries over into other activities and possibly everyday life.”

The tests found that students’ visual skills improved not only in the center of their vision, but also at the periphery. The researchers speculate that study of video game players might be useful in determining which visual skils can be improved by experience, which in turn may suggest treatment methods and rehabilitation software for people with visual defecits.

The study will be published next week in Psychological Science, and was funded by grants from the National Institutes of Health.

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