Action Video Games: The New Rx for Vision?

Parents, beware: Your video gaming kids may now have a new argument to justify the hours they spend playing. A new study from the University of Rochester has found that playing high-action video games can actually be good for your vision.

The study, which was funded by the National Institutes of Health and will appear in the upcoming issue of Psychological Science, determined that people who played action-based video games such as “Unreal Tournament” for a few hours a week improved their visual acuity, or their ability to identify letters presented in clutter, by about 20 percent. In other words, it made them better able to ace tests on a standard eye chart.

“Action video game play changes the way our brains process visual information,” said Daphne Bavelier, professor of brain and cognitive sciences at the university and one of the researchers in the study. “After just 30 hours, players showed a substantial increase in the spatial resolution of their vision, meaning they could see figures like those on an eye chart more clearly, even when other symbols crowded in.”

Split Groups

To conduct their study, Bavelier and graduate student Shawn Green first had to find college students who played few, if any, video games. “That alone was pretty tough,” said Green. “Nearly everybody on a campus plays video games.”

After an initial, baseline test, students were then divided into two groups: one played action game “Unreal Tournament” for an hour a day, while the other played “Tetris,” which is less visually complex.

After a month, the “Tetris” players still performed at the same level on vision tests, but the “Unreal Tournament” players showed significant improvement.

“When people play action games, they’re changing the brain’s pathway responsible for visual processing,” said 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.”

Good News for Some

Needless to say, the study is sure to bring joy to those in the gaming industry. “I’ve seen studies focusing on how video games can increase the ability to coordinate moves, such as in ‘Dance Dance Revolution,'” Michael Cai, director of broadband and gaming for Parks Associates, told TechNewsWorld. “I’ve also seen studies on improving IQ. But this is definitely news to me. Anything that sheds positive light on the gaming industry is going to be helpful.”

On the other hand, “there are lots of these types of studies on whether video games are bad for your eyes or your psyche, and there’s always a strong argument on both sides,” Ted Pollack, senior analyst for the gaming industry at Jon Peddie Research, told TechNewsWorld. “I don’t think it really affects the industry.”

An Opposing View

At least one critic of the study has already emerged. “The test they’re using is not for visual acuity,” Maggie Woodhouse, a senior lecturer in the School of Optometry and Vision Sciences at Cardiff University in Wales, said. “They’ve trained their students to make rapid eye movements and to scan large areas to find objects of interest. That is visual search.”

So, if there is a benefit in playing video games, it will be in the ability to locate objects in a large or crowded area, such as finding a friend’s face in a crowd, Woodhouse added, but not an overall improvement in vision.

The University of Rochester researchers could not be reached for a response.

Bavelier’s team is now studying how the brain responds to other visual stimuli using a 360-degree virtual-reality computer lab.

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