Video killed the radio star, the old song goes – but violent video games, a new Tel Aviv University study finds, can also improve the real-world vision of teens who play them.
"As a father and brain scientist, I was quite concerned when my kids were growing up and playing video games," says Dr Uri Polat of Tel Aviv University’s Goldschlager Eye Institute, who partnered with the University of Rochester to carry out the new study. "What we see now is that teens who play violent video games are also training their brains to see better."
Results of the study were recently reported in the journal Nature Neuroscience.
Shades of grey
Dr Polat and his collaborators compared the effects of playing violent action games like Unreal Tournament 2004 and Call of Duty 2 to other video games which do not require high levels of visual-motor coordination, like The Sims.
Administering a standardised visual test to 22 game-playing teenagers, Dr Polat assessed the teens’ Contrast Sensitivity Function (CSF), the primary factor used by eye specialists to measure the quality of an individual’s eyesight. Usually, improvements in CSF are only found when eye doctors prescribe eyeglasses, contact lenses or surgery. Surprisingly, the researchers discovered that playing violent video games enhanced the ability of the young game players to discriminate between subtle contrasts in colour or shades of grey.
In the recent study, the game-playing teens were divided into two groups. One played violent video games, and the other played The Sims 2. After playing 50 hours of the assigned game over 9 weeks, the students who played the more violent action games showed a 43% improvement, on average, in their ability to discern between very close shades of gray. The players assigned to the Sims game showed no improvement.
Studies have already shown that video games enhance motor skills and reaction time, but Dr Polat suspected that there might be other virtues to these controversial games as well. "Many researchers had been debating if there is any effect on vision while playing video games," says Dr Polat. "I suggested that we ask scientifically if there could be any positive effects on basic visual tasks."
"We think that the games are taking the brain’s visual cortex to the limits, forcing it to adapt to the added stimuli of the action games," Dr Polat concludes.
(Source: American Friends of Tel Aviv University: Nature Neuroscience: April 2009)