Was this cause or effect, though? Were the games improving people’s focus or were people with good attentional focus simply more likely to play action video games?, Bavelier and Green asked non-gamers to play the first-person shooter game Medal of Honor for one hour a day for 10 days, and found their ability to focus on environmental cues improved much more than those in a control group who played the classic puzzle game Tetris. Additional tests from other researchers came to similar conclusions. For instance, Joseph Chisholm, a psychologist at the University of British Columbia, Canada, found action video game players were better able to identify distraction and quicker to return their focus to the main task.
Bavelier wanted to pin down more precisely why action gamers appear to have better focus. She placed electroencephalography (EEG) headsets on gamers and non-gamers, and asked them to watch a screen on which three rapid sequences of letters appeared simultaneously. They were told to focus on one of the three and press a button when numbers appeared, while ignoring distractions. The EEG headsets tracked electrical signals in the brain, allowing Bevelier to measure how much attention the volunteer was allocating to the task and to the distraction. Gamers and non-gamers were equally able to focus their attention on the target sequences, but the gamers performed better and had quicker reaction times. "The big difference was action video gamers are better at ignoring irrelevant, distracting visual information, and so made better decisions," she says.
Her team has also shown that action gamers may have stronger vision. They can better distinguish between different shades of grey, called contrast sensitivity, which is important when driving at night and in other poor visibility situations, and is affected by ageing and undermined in those with amblyopia, or "lazy eye". They also have better visual acuity, which is what opticians measure when they ask you to read lines of ever smaller letters from a chart at distance.
Bavelier found action video games could also improve the vision of non-gamers. She asked groups of non-gamers to play 50 hours of Unreal Tournament 2004 or Call of Duty 2, or to play the slower, non-action game, The Sims 2, over nine weeks. By the end of the study, the contrast sensitivity of those who trained on action games had improved more than those who played The Sims 2, and the benefits lasted for at least five months. Other researchers at the University of California, Berkeley, showed that adults with lazy eyes who spent 40 hours playing video games with their good eyes patched could improve their ability to distinguish smaller letters on such charts. The higher scores were not seen in those asked to do other visually demanding tasks such as reading and knitting with their good eyes patched.
Power of empathy
Researchers know from years of studies that when men and women are given the task of rotating two-dimensional and three-dimensional objects in their heads, men tend to perform better than women. When Jing Feng, a psychologist at the University of Toronto, in Canada, and colleagues asked a small group of non-gamers to play either Medal of Honor or the 3D puzzle game Ballance for 10 hours over several sessions, they were surprised by the results. They found the action game training boosted the scores of the female participants more than it did the males, and the effect of the training was still apparent five months later.
"We already knew that there are gender differences in mental rotation but it was interesting to see they exist in our ability to effectively distribute attention in space, and more importantly that this is something that can be diminished through playing action video games," says Feng. "If we could extract the critical training components from first-person shooter games, I could see ways to develop spatial-skills training tools to address gender differences in fields like engineering and information technology."