University of Rochester

Action-Based Video Games Enhance Visual Attention

May 28, 2003

Research in the upcoming issue of Nature demonstrates that action video games can give a person the ability to monitor more objects in their visual field and do so faster than a person who doesn't play such games. The study by researchers at the University of Rochester suggests that in addition to making game players more aware of their surroundings while performing tasks such as driving, action game playing might be a useful tool to rehabilitate visually impaired patients or to train soldiers for combat.

"Players can process visual information more quickly and can track 30 percent more objects than nonplayers," says Daphne Bavelier, associate professor of brain and cognitive sciences, and member of the Center for Visual Science "Several game players even achieved perfect scores on tests barely doable for non-game players."

The link between visual attention and action games was first recognized when a student of Bavelier's, Shawn Green, demonstrated exceptional proficiency at the visual tests Green and Bavelier was devising. Upon discovering that Green was an avid game player, the two embarked on a line of research to test if playing action games like Grand Theft Auto3, Medal of Honor, or Half-Life, could train the brain to better process certain visual information.

Aficionados of action games (all males since only a single fanatic female gamer could be found on campus) were presented with three tests. One flashed a small object on screen for 1/160th of a second, and the participant would indicate where it flashed. The slightest lack of attention and the brain would miss the appearance of the object completely. Gamers tended to notice the object far more often than non-gamers.

The second test presented one to 12 small objects on screen at once and the subject had to type how many objects they'd seen. Again, gamers saw the correct number of objects more often. The final test flashed black letters in extremely rapid succession. One letter was white, and it may or may not have been followed by a black "X." Gamers again picked out which letter was white and whether or not an "X" followed it better than non-gamers.

The Nature paper explains how, to their surprise, Bavelier and Green discovered that as little as ten hours of game playing was enough to significantly increase a person's visual awareness.

To guard against the possibility that their findings were merely the result of more visually attentive people naturally gravitating toward action games, Bavelier and Green tested non-gamers, both men and women this time. They set up nine of the group to play the action game Medal of Honor and eight to play Tetris, a puzzle-oriented game. After just an hour a day for two weeks, the action players showed a marked increase in their test performances, which the Tetris players did not.

"It's likely the sense of danger heightens awareness and trains the visual response of the brain, but other aspects might also contribute," says Green. "On the other hand, the Tetris players, while scoring low on our tests, might score well if testing for ability to rotate and organize objects."

If the brain can be trained to have heightened visual attention as this study indicates, then it might be especially useful for helping patients with neurological visual impairments to see more normally. Often in stroke patients, for instance, a kind of blindness occurs in part of the visual field, but the impairment isn't physical, it's a result of the brain's "inattentiveness" to that area. Current treatments are laborious, taking years for improvement, but Green and Bavelier's research suggests that video games may provide a much more economical way of bringing the brain's attentiveness back. If a healthy brain can improve in their tests after just 10 hours of game playing, perhaps similar results could be seen in patients.

Green and Bavelier point out that gaming is no substitute for building other areas of the brain, and that exercises that demand prolonged attention, such as reading or solving math problems, are likely not helped at all by extensive game-playing.

As a next step in their research, the members of the team would like to design their own action video games that they can modify at will to see just what aspects of gaming allows such efficient learning . With that knowledge, Green and Bavelier would ultimately like to create non-violent action games that could help stroke patients recover their visual awareness.

This research was supported by the National Institutes of Health and the James S. McDonnell-Pew Foundation.