Action-Packed Video Games Sharpen Teenager's Vision

Author:  Dunia Rassy
Institution:  London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine

Spending hours in front of a TV playing video games may actually be good for teenagers. Previous studies have shown that these games enhance motor skills and reaction time, but this time around, a study published in April's issue of Nature Neuroscience demonstrates that playing violent video games improves visual functions in young males. The study was a joint effort between researchers from the University of Rochester and Tel Aviv University.

The team focused on contrast sensitivity function, which is used regularly to assess a person's eyesight quality. It is based on the eye's ability to distinguish different shades of gray. Contrast sensitivity becomes useful when trying to distinguish objects in a dim room or from a busy background.

To determine if video games had an effect on vision, 20 volunteers played 50 hours of video games over a 9-week period. Half of the participants played two different first-person shooter action games. Both games require keen eye and fast movements to avoid being killed. The other half played an engaging but slow-paced game. Contrast sensitivity was tested in each of the volunteers before and after the experiment.

The researchers found an improvement of up to 58% in contrast sensitivity in those who played first-person-shooter games. The most skilled players experienced the greatest improvement. Since improvement in contrast sensitivity has been attained previously only by prescribing eyeglasses, using contact lenses, or undertaking surgery, these findings offer hope for less invasive treatments. The researchers also observed that the improvement of visual function was not temporary. Sixteen of the volunteers who had played violent video games were retested after a period of five months to a year, and contrast sensitivity improvement had not faded after this time.

At the biological level, Uri Polat, a professor at Tel Aviv University, believes that ".the gamers are taking the brain's visual cortex to the limits, forcing it to adapt to the added stimuli of the action games." This could mean that video game playing may also help overcome optical and retinal defects by retraining the brain to make better use of the information it receives. However, as evidenced by the results, not every video game stimulates the brain to improve contrast sensitivity. Hence, if videogames are to be used therapeutically, they must be carefully chosen and dosed.