Playing video games can sharpen vision, increase attention

By Brian De Los Santos

Don’t drop the joysticks just yet. Playing video games, in moderation like a healthy diet, can have positive effects on health, researchers say.

Playing video games in moderation can improve vision in terms of seeing details in color and contrast sensitivity — distinguishing between an object and its background
Playing video games in moderation can improve vision in terms of seeing details in color and contrast sensitivity — distinguishing between an object and its background

That was the focus of the “Video Games, Brains, and Society” panel during the AAAS Annual Meeting Saturday morning at the Hyatt Regency Chicago. Three panelists — Daphne Bavelier of the University of Rochester, Daniel L. Schwartz of Stanford University and Alan Gershenfeld of E-Line Media, a video game company — discussed how games so popular among children can be used a healthy tool.

The topic is different that the conventional line of thinking, Bavelier said. Prior to researching the topic, she was hard pressed to believe that leveling up in a “Call of Duty” video game was making young students better at math.

“The first reaction you have is, ‘Can’t you do something a little more intelligent?’ ” she said.

But improving performance in video games can benefit health. Bavelier mentioned a study in which she learned that people who play action games, like first-person shooting games, improved their vision in terms of seeing details in color and contrast sensitivity — distinguishing between an object and the background.

“These are all very basic aspects of vision that we usually correct with glasses,” she said. “But here we don’t think we’re acting at the level of the eye. Here, we think we’re acting a the level of the brain.”

The positive health effects of video games have been used in the rehabilitation process as well. Bavelier said researchers are trying to train those who have amblyopia, a usually unfixable condition in which one eye does not develop correctly during childhood, to regain strength in their vision.

Beyond eyesight, video games improved the ability to resist distraction and coordinate between different demands, Bavelier said. The key, however, is moderation: playing five hours per week, 30 minutes per day.

“This research is no excuse for binging,” she said with a laugh.