How video games stretch the limits of our visual attention

November 18, 2010

They are often accused of being distracting, but recent research has found that action packed video games like Halo and Call of Duty can enhance visual attention, the ability that allows us to focus on relevant visual information. This growing body of research, reviewed in WIREs Cognitive Science, suggests that action based games could be used to improve military training, educational approaches, and certain visual deficits.

The review, authored by a group led by Dr Daphne Bavelier from the University of Rochester, focused on the impact video games have on , the mechanism which allows us to select relevant and suppress irrelevant information, allowing us to function in a world made up of infinite visual data.

"Visual attention is crucial to preventing sensory overload, since the brain is constantly faced with an overwhelming amount of visual information," explained Bjorn Hubert-Wallander, the paper's lead author. "It's an ability that is especially emphasized during visually demanding activities such as driving a car or searching for a friend's face in a crowd, so it is not surprising that scientists have long been interested in ways to modify, extend, and enhance the different facets of visual attention."

Paralleling the growing interest in visual attention, the world of video games has developed both technologically and culturally. It is now believed that 68% of American households play video or computer games. Hubert-Wallander, Green, and Bavelier reviewed recent studies by their group but also many other laboratories where gamers and non-gamers had to perform tasks related to visual attention and found that gamers consistently outperformed their non game playing peers.

While gamers were found to outstrip nongamers in these tests, they also found that not all video games provide the same benefits to attention. Fast-paced, action based games that emphasized rapid responses to visual information and required divided attention seemed to be the only ones that affected attention specifically.

"Just as drivers have to focus on the road, other cars, and potential obstacles while ignoring other information, modern action games place heavy attentional demands on players," said Hubert-Wallander. "These games require players to aim and shoot accurately in the center of the screen while continuously tracking other enemies and fast moving objects."

Training studies have also shown improvements in the visual attention of non-gamers given experience playing these video games, establishing that it is the actual play that is causing the benefits. This finding that video games can enhance visual attention abilities may have implications for military training and broader education, as well as clinical rehabilitation programs for conditions such as amblyopia.

"At the core of these action video game-induced improvements appears to be a remarkable enhancement in the ability to flexibly and precisely control attention, a finding that could have a variety of real-world applications," concluded Shawn Green, one of the co-authors. "For example, those in professions that demand "super-normal" visual attention, such as fighter pilots, would benefit enormously from enhanced visual attention, as their performance and lives depend on their ability to react quickly and accurately to primarily visual information."

Explore further: Video games shown to improve vision

Related Stories

Video games shown to improve vision

March 15, 2007

According to a new study from the University of Rochester, playing action video games sharpens vision. In tests of visual acuity that assess the ability to see objects accurately in a cluttered space, game players scored ...

Action video games improve vision

March 29, 2009

Video games that involve high levels of action, such as first-person-shooter games, increase a player's real-world vision, according to research in today's Nature Neuroscience.

Racing, shooting and zapping your way to better visual skills

December 17, 2009

Do your kids want a Wii, a PlayStation or an Xbox 360 this year? This holiday gift season is packed with popular gaming systems and adrenaline-pumping, sharpshooting games. What's a parent to do? Is there any redeeming value ...

Video games lead to faster decisions that are no less accurate

September 13, 2010

Cognitive scientists from the University of Rochester have discovered that playing action video games trains people to make the right decisions faster. The researchers found that video game players develop a heightened sensitivity ...

Recommended for you

How the finch changes its tune

August 3, 2015

Like top musicians, songbirds train from a young age to weed out errors and trim variability from their songs, ultimately becoming consistent and reliable performers. But as with human musicians, even the best are not machines. ...

Machine Translates Thoughts into Speech in Real Time

December 21, 2009

( -- By implanting an electrode into the brain of a person with locked-in syndrome, scientists have demonstrated how to wirelessly transmit neural signals to a speech synthesizer. The "thought-to-speech" process ...

1 comment

Adjust slider to filter visible comments by rank

Display comments: newest first

not rated yet Nov 19, 2010
Good to know that we are raising a vast army of future Predator drone remote-pilots!

Please sign in to add a comment. Registration is free, and takes less than a minute. Read more

Click here to reset your password.
Sign in to get notified via email when new comments are made.