Parents, the next time you fret that your child is wasting too much time playing video games, consider new research suggesting that video gaming may have real-world benefits for your child's developing brain.
Daphne Bavelier is professor of brain and cognitive sciences at the University of Rochester. She studies young people playing action video games. Having now conducted more than 20 studies on the topic, Bavelier says, "It turns out that action video games are far from mindless."
Her studies show that video gamers show improved skills in vision, attention and certain aspects of cognition. And these skills are not just gaming skills, but real-world skills. They perform better than non-gamers on certain tests of attention, speed, accuracy, vision and multitasking, says Bavelier.
Seeing Shades Of Gray
Vision, for example, is improved in gamers. Specifically, the kind of vision called "contrast sensitivity," that is, the ability to see subtle shades of gray.
"And this is a skill that comes in very handy if you're driving in fog," Bavelier says. "Seeing the car ahead of you is determined by your contrast sensitivity." Skilled gamers also are able to see smaller type size than non-gamers on vision tests.
But Bavelier wanted to know which came first: Is better vision caused by playing action video games, or is better vision a skill that gamers bring to the table? Perhaps, Bavelier wondered, gamers already have sharp vision, and are thus good at action games and vision tests.
To check this out, Bavelier recruited non-gamers and trained them for a few weeks to play action video games. "At the end of their training," Bavelier says, "they're told, go back home. No more gaming. They're not allowed to play any games."
Then they came back into the lab every few months to have their vision re-checked.
Bavelier found that their vision remained improved, even without further practice on action video games. "We looked at the effect of playing action games on this visual skill of contrast sensitivity, and we've seen effects that last up to two years."
Gamers, Bavelier has also found, have better attention than non-gamers -- they stay focused. She gave gamers several tests to measure attention and found that gamers get less distracted by what came before and by events in their surroundings.
They are able to detect, for example, new information coming at them faster. So as a result, they are more efficient. And Bavelier also says that gamers can switch from task to task much faster than non-gamers, making them better multitaskers.
"We see that typically in people that don't play action games, their reaction time [on tests of multitasking] lengthened by 200 milliseconds, which is something like 30 percent," Bavelier says. "But in gamers, it lengthened only by 10 percent."
Closing The Gender Gap
Brain researcher Jay Pratt, professor of psychology at the University of Toronto, has studied the differences between men and women in their ability to mentally manipulate 3-D figures. This skill is called spatial cognition, and it's an essential mental skill for math and engineering. Typically, Pratt says, women test significantly worse than men on tests of spatial cognition.
But Pratt found in his studies that when women who'd had little gaming experience were trained on action video games, the gender difference nearly disappeared.
After 10 hours of training, Pratt brought the women back to the lab and gave them the spatial cognition test again.
"And we found that the women improved substantially, and almost caught up to the men's scores," he says.
Pratt also investigated another area of spatial cognition called "the useful field of view," which is essentially how much of the visual field a person can perceive at any given moment. In other words, as Pratt describes it, "How wide can you cast your net of attention?"
Typically, there are baseline differences between men and women on this test, with men performing significantly better. But Pratt found that training on action video games enabled women to significantly improve on this test of visual attention.
Pratt says playing these video games changes your ability to learn, and to find and integrate new information.
"Video game players are able to pick up very subtle, statistical irregularities in environments and use them to their advantage," Pratt says. "And these same irregularities in environments are the things that help us guide our behaviors on a daily basis."
Game Console Artists
To better understand how gamers acquire these non-gaming skills, neuroscientist Lauren Sergio, of York University in Toronto, looks inside the brain. She's found an important difference between gamers and non-gamers in how and where the brain processes information. She likens skilled gamers to musicians.
"If you look at professional piano players, professional musicians, you see this phenomena where they don't activate as much of their brain to do very complicated things with their hands that the rest of us need to do. And we found that the gamers did this as well."
Skilled gamers mainly use their frontal cortex, according to Sergio's fMRI studies. That's an area of the brain specialized for planning, attention and multitasking. Non-gamers, in contrast, predominately use an area called the parietal cortex, the part of the brain specializing in visual spatial functions.
"The non-gamers had to think a lot more and use a lot more of the workhorse parts of their brains for eye-hand coordination," Sergio says. "Whereas the gamers really didn't have to use that much brain at all, and they just used these higher cognitive centers to do it."
So the next time you despair that your child is immersed, yet again, in an action video game, remember: Gaming can improve some important skills.
Bavelier hopes that more action video games will be developed that train these skills without the violence found in the typical games available today. And all the researchers suggest that parents should limit their kids' time on video games. Moderation, they say, is the key.
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And I'm Linda Wertheimer.
Today in "Your Health," answers to some of the dilemmas faced by the parents of teenagers. But first, it's the time of year when many of us are tempted to buy a video game or two for our kids - even if you're a parent who thinks screen time should be limited, and violent action video games are a no-no. So if you're feeling guilty as you wrap up those gifts, reporter Michelle Trudeau has some information about virtual play that you might find reassuring.
Unidentified Boy #1: Pick it up. It's a chopper gunner. No, let me get it.
Unidentified Teen #1: I just killed a guy, but then I got killed, which means we've got to work. Come on here, we've got to do this. Oh, I missed him. Yes. Got him with a knife, so now I get another bullet.
Unidentified Boy #1: I just got a last second kill.
(Soundbite of gunfire)
MICHELLE TRUDEAU: Two brothers, 11 and 19, sit together in front of a big-screen TV, each gripping a game controller, eyes tracking animated soldiers running, ducking, shooting. It's the chaos of battle, up close and visceral. And the boys are completely immersed.
Professor DAPHNE BAVELIER (University of Rochester): My name is Daphne Bavelier.
TRUDEAU: Professor Bavelier, of the University of Rochester, studies young people playing action video games.
Prof. BAVELIER: We're talking about the kind of video games that makes most parents frown, right? The fast-paced, action games where if you see your 13-year-old playing that game, you're not really thinking he's engaging in a mind-enhancing activity.
TRUDEAU: But Bavelier, having now published over two dozen studies on the topic, finds these games are far from mindless.
Prof. BAVELIER: People that play a lot of action games seem to be good at a number of different skills.
TRUDEAU: And skills that are not just gaming skills but real-world skills -small, incremental changes in some abilities, like how well you see some things.
Prof. BAVELIER: People that play those fast-action games have better vision.
TRUDEAU: Specifically, better contrast sensitivity, as it's called - being able to discern slight differences in shades of gray.
Prof. BAVELIER: And this is a skill that comes very handy, for example, if you're driving in fog. Seeing the car ahead of you is determined by your contrast sensitivity.
TRUDEAU: And Bavelier finds this visual skill lasts for up to two years after people stop playing the action games. And another skill: Gamers are not easily distracted. They stay more focused than non-gamers on tests of attention. And as a result...
Prof. BAVELIER: They're able to detect, for example, new information coming at them faster.
TRUDEAU: And on speed tests, gamers' reaction time is both quicker and more accurate than non-gamers'. And they can switch from task to task much faster than non-gamers, making them better multitaskers.
Brain researcher Jay Pratt, from the University of Toronto, suggests how these non-gaming cognitive skills may develop.
Professor JAY PRATT (Psychology, University of Toronto): What playing these video games does is, it changes your ability to learn, to essentially acquire and integrate information.
TRUDEAU: Pratt is studying differences between men and women in the ability to mentally manipulate 3-D figures. It's an essential mental skill for math and engineering, called spatial cognition. Women typically test far worse than men on this. But when Pratt trained some women on video games, their skills changed.
Prof. PRATT: We found that the women improved substantially, and almost caught up to the men's scores.
TRUDEAU: To understand how gamers acquire these skills, Lauren Sergio, from York University, looks inside the brain. She's found an important difference between gamers and non-gamers in how the brain processes information. She likens skilled gamers to musicians.
Prof. LAUREN SERGIO (Neuroscience, York University, Toronto): So if you look at professional piano players, professional musicians, you see this phenomena where they don't activate as much of their brain to do very complicated things with their hands that the rest of us need to do. And we found that the gamers did this as well.
TRUDEAU: Skilled gamers mainly use their frontal cortex, Sergio finds, an area specialized for planning, attention and multitasking. Non-gamers, in contrast, mostly use an area called the parietal cortex, the part of the brain for visual spatial functions.
Dr. SERGIO: The non-gamers had to think a lot more, and use a lot more of the workhorse parts of their brains, for eye-hand coordination whereas the gamers really didn't have to use that much brain at all. And they just used - sort of these higher cognitive centers to do it.
TRUDEAU: So the next time you despair that your child is immersed in an action video game, remember: Gaming can improve some important skills in vision, attention and spatial cognition.
Researcher Daphne Bavelier hopes that more games will be developed that teach these skills - without the violence of the typical action game. And all the researchers suggest parents should limit their kids' time on video games. Moderation is the key.
For NPR News, I'm Michelle Trudeau. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.