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Shoot more, see more. Playing action video games improved contrast sensitivity.

The Keen Eyes of a Gamer

John is a Science contributing correspondent.

Video games, long maligned for promoting violence, may also have a good side: improving eyesight. Gory "first-person shooter" games, in which players must act quickly to kill their virtual opponents, seem to have lasting effects on a key aspect of vision, a new study shows.

In 2002, Daphne Bavelier, a cognitive neuroscientist at the University of Rochester in New York state, found that playing action video games improved visual attention skills (ScienceNOW, 18 April 2002). This time she compared avid gamers with nongamers on a type of visual perception called contrast sensitivity. It allows people to make out objects in dim lighting and to distinguish objects from a busy background.

Male gamers in their late teens and 20s, Bavelier found in a pilot study, performed significantly better than nongamers in the same demographic. To determine whether video games explained this difference, she and colleagues designed a video game boot camp in which 50 adult volunteers each played 50 hours of video games over a 9-week period. Half of the participants played two first-person-shooter action games, Unreal Tournament and Call of Duty 2, in which players must quickly detect and kill enemies to avoid being killed themselves. Meanwhile, the control group played The Sims 2, a "casual" simulation game that requires a great deal of observation and strategy but at a very leisurely pace. The subjects were tested for contrast sensitivity before and after the training.

Those who played the action video games showed a roughly 50% improvement in performance on the contrast-sensitivity test, whereas the control group showed no significant improvement, the team reports this week in Nature Neuroscience. Later testing of 18 of the subjects showed that the improvement had not disappeared after several months--even though these subjects said they had not changed their video game habits. Bavelier chalks up the change to "neural plasticity"--the ability of our brains to rewire themselves to more efficiently visually process the life-or-death scenes in action video games.

"The results are convincing," says Dennis Levi, dean of the School of Optometry at the University of California, Berkeley. "While we don't yet understand how playing action video games enhances visual processing, the very promising aspect of this is that it may provide a new method for treating patients." People with amblyopia--or "lazy eye"--suffer a severe loss of contrast sensitivity, and a regimen of action video games could complement other treatments, Levi says. The next step will be to test action video games that do not involve guns and mayhem.

Posted in Brain & Behavior, Social Sciences