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Altered perception: The science of video gaming

Shawn Green

In the lab where Shawn Green '01 (above) works, amid the computer terminals and testing gadgets, are dozens of empty cola bottles; he drinks the stuff instinctively if not compulsively. It's a habit the behavioral and cognitive sciences graduate says he picked up from hours behind a gamepad playing video games. And now those hours are paying off in an unexpectedly interesting change in Green's academic game plan.

In the May 29 issue of Nature, Green and Daphne Bavelier, associate professor of behavioral and cognitive sciences, published findings that video game playing can significantly enhance visual perception; the media frenzy that followed, which included a live interview on BBC Radio as well as features on NBC, CNN, and other networks, Green says, took him by surprise.

In a recent interview, Green discussed his role in the study that has inarguably broken ground in the field of visual perception and in many ways posed as many new questions as it has answered.

How did video games become the focus of your research?

It really started during my senior year as part of an honors project in the Department of Behavioral and Cognitive Sciences. I worked with Professor Bavelier to design an experiment to test peripheral vision changes for people with congenital deafness. As I was piloting and programming the tests, I noticed that I was really good at them, like off-the-charts good. In fact, I was so good that I thought I'd programmed the tests all wrong.

So I asked some friends to take the tests and that's when I first noticed the connection. I had a couple of friends who played video games and a few who didn't. Those who didn't play games performed just as they should, but the gamers performed much like I did.

Were these results surprising?

When I first noticed the difference, I didn't think it was a big deal. I mean, after all, why wouldn't they be better at these types of tasks? It wasn't until I started reading the literature on perceptual learning that I realized it would be a bigger deal to research scientists. Generally when you train someone on something, it's all they get better at. The fact that this generalizes makes it much more interesting.

What types of tests were involved in the study you published with Bavelier?

We tested about 100 people, and it took about two years to complete the study, compile the results, and write the paper.

There were four tests included in the study, some much more complicated than others. The first test was a localization test. An object would flash on a screen for just a few milliseconds, and the subjects had to recall in what area of the screen the object appeared. The people who played video games were 50 percent better at this test.

Overall, in all the tests, we found a general increase in visual attention; people who played video games, specifically the action, first-person shooter games, were just more attuned to what's going on in the visual field, both over space and time.

Do you know of other researchers studying perception and video gaming?

We've heard from a few other investigators. The group with the biggest interest seems to be the U.S. Army. They've got their game America's Army, which is used for training purposes and as a recruitment tool. But there seems to be very few studies investigating the connection between video games and visual perception. After all, it's only really been in the last few years that games have exploded in popularity and have become so lifelike.

What was the media blitz like after the study was published in Nature?

I had expected some interest in the results but nothing like what happened. NBC News came and filmed for a couple of hours, and The New York Times ran several in-depth pieces. I did phone interviews for all sorts of media outlets in New York, London, even Norway.

While the experience was really amazing, it also was a bit frustrating that there was so much focus on the social aspects of video games. Professor Bavelier and I were approaching the topic from a purely scientific, physiological point of view, yet people still wanted to engage us in dialogues about the pros and cons of gaming, which was never the focus of our study.

How has your work in this study affected your future plans?

Well, it's funny, I hadn't really planned on getting my Ph.D. in behavioral and cognitive sciences; I was actually considering a medical degree instead. But the study has been so exciting to work on; it's really opened up a whole line of investigation that I'd like to pursue. This type of learning could be especially promising as a training tool for people who have visual perception deficits.

I plan to continue this line of investigation into my graduate program here at the University, refine the work we've done, and branch out to determine the range of visual factors affected by gaming.

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