Video Games and Vision
Video games have a bad reputation for polluting the mind and creating couch potatoes. I've heard many parents tell their kids "you'll ruin your eyes that way."
As a gamer, and an ophthalmic technician, I have never found any of the negative stereotypes surrounding video gaming to be true. In fact, I’ve found quite the opposite, and there is research that proves video games actually enhance visual perception (it's not just my biased opinion).
Playing video games, specifically action video games (like the first person shooters Call of Duty Modern Warfare, Halo, and Unreal Tournament Series) can actually improve visual acuity and the eye's ability to track objects quickly. Because there is so much action on the screen the eyes are constantly moving, which strengthens the eye muscles. But it also affects the occipital lobe, the area of the brain that processes the images we see.
The occipital lobe is the largest part of our brain (the purple area on the right in the diagram above), which is a bit ironic, because animals have better vision than we do (like dogs and cat). However, they do not have the ability to use selective visual attention.
Selective visual attention is the ability to pick and choose bits of information for more processing while we ignore others. Essentially, it’s a safety feature of the brain to prevent a sensory overload. Cool, right? There’s more. Visual attention can be very specific. It can be directed at a certain area of the retina, specific objects and even moments in time.
About the Author
Melissa Flagg is an ophthalmic technician who has been examining patients on a daily basis for over 20 years.
She has had rigorous training under the supervision of an ophthalmologist and specialized in the cornea, cataracts, and retina as well as how systemic disease affects the eye. She has been certified by JCAHPO as a Certified Ophthalmic Assistant and Scribe.
There are several different types of visual attention including:
- Visuo-Spatial Selective Attention
- Objects of Attention
- Attention in Time
This enhanced processing allows for much faster reaction times, and lower detection thresholds (certain things are more easily detected), while at the same time the unused information is actually suppressed.
The article Stretching the Limits of Visual Attention: The Case of Action Video Games, written by Bjorn Hubert-Wallander et al. has this to say about visual attention:
In many cases, the allocation of attention can be the difference between seeing and reacting appropriately versus missing the event of interest, with all the negative consequences it entails.
This paper discusses the benefits of action video gaming on the ability of visual attention. Action video games refer to first person shooter fast paced video games such as Halo, Call of Duty Modern Warfare, and Battlefield 3.
These games require the player to continuously maintain focus on the center of the screen so as to aim accurately, while also monitoring other enemies in the surrounding area. In many of these games, there are up to 66 players in a game (as in Battlefield 4). This requires the player to monitor multiple targets at one time.
Below is a video of my husband playing Battlefield 4. I choose this clip because of everything that's happening on the screen, it really gives you a good feel for the action in gaming (plus it's really cool).
Vision and Movement of Video Games
Visuo-Spatial Selective Attention
Visuo-spatial selective attention is the ability to distribute our attention to specific areas around us. This allows us to search for specific targets. Visuo-spatial selective attention is most commonly used when driving. We are constantly scanning the areas around us for possible threats.
When gaming, this comes in quite handy. For example, when playing Modern Warfare 3 (one of my favorite games), the gamer has to constantly scan their surroundings for enemies, while also keeping an eye out for grenades, claymores, C4 and incoming air assaults.
Multiple Object Tracking
Most of us can handle three to four targets at a time, but anymore and they become distractions. Video gamers have a much higher tolerance due to the multiple targets they encounter and the frequency in which they encounter them.
This essentially bestows the ability to hyper-focus, but to do so with amazing efficiency. They can easily see, aim and kill their targets, while ignoring (but remembering) everything else around them.
I’ve seen this when my husband plays. It’s almost like in the movies, when the main character just finishes a fight, but then somehow “knows” there’s someone behind him and turns around and kills him. It is situational awareness.
Moments in Time
Gamers have an enhanced visual memory. They essentially "refresh" their short-term visual memory constantly, and they are continually updating their memory with new targets as the game progresses.
This allows gamers to process several successive targets with accuracy and do so efficiently. Many gamers (myself included) are hyper-observant because of this.
They can keep a higher number of items in their visual working memory without losing anything.
Video gaming actually improves hand-eye coordination. The gamer has to connect what the eye sees on the screen with what their hands are doing on the controller.
Using the controller isn’t easy; all it takes is very subtle movements to aim at a target. This can be very tricky, especially in fast paced action games. If you use more movement than you need, you miss the target.
Video gaming also increases reaction time. In gaming, this is the time between seeing the target and hitting the fire button. Gamers have to be faster than their opponent, or they lose a life.
The kill/death ratio tends to be very important to players, and the more deaths you have the lower the kill/death ratio. This encourages the player to be consistently faster in reacting to an enemy.
I have experienced this personally. I didn’t start gaming until about nine years ago, and before then, my reaction time was horrible. After nine years of gaming, my reaction time has increased dramatically. In fact, I’ve avoided several car accidents because of it.
Improvement in Contrast Sensitivity
Contrast sensitivity is the ability to differentiate different shades of the color grey on a monochrome background, usually white.
Contrast sensitivity is most important when driving at night and is the first thing affected by cataracts. But not all contrast sensitivity problems are caused by changes in the optical ability of the eye.
In a study conducted by Bavelier et al., it was found that video gamer players (VGPs) had better contrast sensitivity than non-video gamer players (NVGPs). In this study, Bavelier et al, states:
The VGP group showed enhanced contrast sensitivity as compared with the NVGP group, and this population difference interacted with spatial frequency, indicating a greater group difference at the intermediate and higher spatial frequencies than at the lowest spatial frequency.
Video gaming didn’t actually improve the function of the eye. It improved the cortical plasticity of the brain. Plasticity refers to the brain’s ability to adapt and, essentially, rewire itself in an effort to accommodate newly learned skills.
This happens in children as they grow and learn; their brains are constantly changing and making new neural connections. This same process happens in both children and adult gamers.
Li, R., Polat, U., Makous, W. & Bavelier, D. (2009). Enhancing the contrast sensitivity function through action video game playing. Nature Neuroscience.
Hubert-Wallander, B., Green, C. S., & Bavelier, D. (2010). Stretching the limits of visual attention: The case of action video games. WIREs Cognitive Science, Wiley, 1. PDF
Video Games Aren’t Bad
Contrary to popular belief, gaming isn’t a bad thing, although moderation is the key.
I let my daughter play video games because of the enormous benefit it has on her visual spatial perception, visual memory, and hand-eye coordination. But like all things, I have to monitor how much time she spends gaming.
Everyone can benefit from video gaming, including adults. You're never too old to game!!
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