Gaming Your Way to Better Vision (Research Executive Brief)

(Edi­tor’s Note: this puzzleis one of the Research Exec­u­tive Briefs that includ­ed in Sharp­Brains’ mar­ket report. We asked lead­ing neu­ro­sci­en­tists to share find­ings and impli­ca­tions from their own recent pub­lished sci­en­tif­ic stud­ies in order to bet­ter fore­cast the devel­op­ment tra­jec­to­ry of emerg­ing appli­ca­tions for cog­ni­tive health and brain fitness.)

Brief pre­pared by: Bjron Hubert-Wal­lan­der, Bjorn & Daphne Bave­li­er, Bave­li­er Brain & Vision Lab, Uni­ver­si­ty of Rochester.

1. Main findings:

Over the past ten years, research con­duct­ed by our lab and oth­ers has shown that play­ing fast-paced, action-packed videogames can lead to sig­nif­i­cant ben­e­fits in how well one pays atten­tion and how well one sees. Specif­i­cal­ly, our stud­ies have shown that train­ing for as lit­tle as ten hours on action video games (like Medal of Hon­or, Call of Duty, and Unre­al Tour­na­ment) can lead to mea­sur­able enhance­ments in our abil­i­ty to spread our atten­tion around the visu­al field, our abil­i­ty to keep track of mul­ti­ple mov­ing objects, and our abil­i­ty to pick out rel­e­vant infor­ma­tion from a rapid sequence of visu­al events. Most recent­ly though, we have shown that action videogame train­ing can also pos­i­tive­ly affect more basic aspects of vision such as our abil­i­ty to resolve small details or see faint patterns.

Pub­lished in the jour­nal Nature Neu­ro­science in 2009, one of our stud­ies com­pared two groups of col­lege-aged males, those who had a his­to­ry of play­ing action videogames and those who had very rarely or had nev­er played videogames at all. By ana­lyz­ing both groups’ per­for­mance on a task designed to assess con­trast sen­si­tiv­i­ty, the term for our abil­i­ty to detect fine dif­fer­ences in bright­ness, we showed that the videogame-play­ing group’s visu­al sen­si­tiv­i­ty was high­er than the non-gamer group. In order to rule out oth­er poten­tial expla­na­tions for this effect (per­haps those who enjoyed greater nat­ur­al visu­al abil­i­ties are more like­ly to devel­op into action videogame play­ers, for exam­ple), the sec­ond part of the study involved giv­ing non-gamers expe­ri­ence on action videogames to see if this alone could improve their con­trast sen­si­tiv­i­ty. In this part of the study, a pool of sub­jects who had nev­er played action videogames before was test­ed on var­i­ous aspects of their vision and then ran­dom­ly split into two groups. One group was asked to play action videogames for a total of 50 hours over two and a half months while the oth­er group was asked to play 50 hours of non-action videogames (slow­er paced strat­e­gy or social games such as The Sims or Restau­rant Empire). Sev­er­al days after the train­ing end­ed, both groups’ vision was again test­ed. Those who played the action games showed improved con­trast sen­si­tiv­i­ty while those who played con­trol games did not. Thus, the improve­ment ini­tial­ly not­ed in habit­u­al action videogame play­ers is not due to envi­ron­men­tal fac­tors or pre­ex­ist­ing dif­fer­ences between action gamers and non-gamers, but rather is caused by the action game-play­ing itself.

2. Con­text to under­stand those find­ings (i.e., why are they sig­nif­i­cant and relevant):

Though the abil­i­ty to detect fine dif­fer­ences in shad­ing may not sound impres­sive in itself, this abil­i­ty under­lies and has pro­found impli­ca­tions for near­ly all oth­er func­tions of every­day vision. Detect­ing dif­fer­ences in bright­ness allows us to iden­ti­fy lines and edges, which in turn allows us to per­ceive objects as dis­tinct from their back­grounds. Doing this becomes much more dif­fi­cult when vis­i­bil­i­ty is reduced or in poor light­ing. Thus, those who have greater con­trast sen­si­tiv­i­ty can bet­ter see obstruc­tions or oth­er objects while dri­ving at night or in fog, for exam­ple. They can read bet­ter, nav­i­gate bet­ter, iden­ti­fy objects bet­ter, and gen­er­al­ly oper­ate more effec­tive­ly over­all, espe­cial­ly in dim light.

Using a sim­i­lar approach, we have pre­vi­ous­ly found that play­ing action videogames also improves the res­o­lu­tion of vision. Our abil­i­ty to resolve small details in clut­ter is a prime deter­mi­nant of our abil­i­ty to iden­ti­fy spe­cif­ic objects in a crowd­ed visu­al envi­ron­ment. Read­ing, too, is an exam­ple of the kind of visu­al chore that is depen­dent upon visu­al resolution.
These works are the first in the sci­en­tif­ic lit­er­a­ture to demon­strate that visu­al abil­i­ties as fun­da­men­tal to our every­day sight as con­trast sen­si­tiv­i­ty or visu­al res­o­lu­tion can be improved by train­ing. Impor­tant­ly, these stud­ies also estab­lish that not all video games have the same effect on vision. If they did, we should have seen improve­ments in both the action game group and the strat­e­gy game group in the exper­i­ments we describe above, but this was not the case. This high­lights the need for spe­cial atten­tion in the choice of the games to be used when con­sid­er­ing poten­tial real-world applications.

3. Impli­ca­tions for health­care, tech­nol­o­gy and/ or education:

Giv­en the cru­cial role of con­trast sen­si­tiv­i­ty and visu­al res­o­lu­tion in every­day vision and the vast num­ber of peo­ple for whom this abil­i­ty is com­pro­mised (by grad­ual age-relat­ed dete­ri­o­ra­tion or by acute visu­al impair­ments such as ambly­opia), the impor­tance of this dis­cov­ery is appar­ent. Poor vision is often treat­ed by cor­rec­tions in the optics of the eye, but opti­cal prob­lems only account for a por­tion of these cas­es; many times the prob­lem lies in the brain. Since the improve­ments induced by action videogame play­ing take place in the brain, not in the eye, videogame train­ing could make a dif­fer­ence above and beyond eye-based treat­ments for those with low vision. Thus, we sug­gest that inter­ven­tions that include action videogame play as a com­po­nent could be used to enhance the visu­al abil­i­ties (and thus the over­all qual­i­ty of life) of many who suf­fer from low vision. We are cur­rent­ly assess­ing the effec­tive­ness of just such an inter­ven­tion for both ambly­opic patients and old­er adults.

Just as many suf­fer from impaired vision, many oth­ers are in pro­fes­sions that require or ben­e­fit enor­mous­ly from excel­lent vision. For exam­ple, air­craft pilots (both mil­i­tary and com­mer­cial) must be able to see rel­e­vant objects in the sky and on the ground in order to per­form their jobs effec­tive­ly, espe­cial­ly at night or in cloudy skies. When fly­ing at hun­dreds of miles per hour thou­sands of feet above the ground, the con­se­quences of not notic­ing obstruc­tions or ene­my air­craft in time to act on them can be cat­a­stroph­ic. Since excel­lent vision and visu­al atten­tion are impor­tant skills for many pro­fes­sions (mil­i­tary per­son­nel, taxi dri­vers, fire­fight­ers, and most ath­letes, to cite a few), it is like­ly that a large por­tion of the pop­u­la­tion could ben­e­fit from the enhance­ments dis­cussed here. We envi­sion that our find­ings can ulti­mate­ly be har­nessed by train­ing reg­i­mens that alle­vi­ate visu­al deficits as well as bring super-nor­mal visu­al capa­bil­i­ties to those whose safe­ty depends on it. We hope to see such appli­ca­tions in the not-too-dis­tant future.

Sci­en­tif­ic cita­tions:

  • Li, R., Polat, U., Mak­ous, W. & Bave­li­er, D. (2009). Enhanc­ing the con­trast sen­si­tiv­i­ty func­tion through action video game play­ing. Nature Neu­ro­science, 12(5), 527–8.
  • Green, C.S. & Bave­li­er, D. (2007). Action video game expe­ri­ence alters the spa­tial res­o­lu­tion of vision. Psy­cho­log­i­cal Sci­ence, 18(1), 88–94.


  1. Richard on April 30, 2010 at 12:25

    Great post real­ly enjoyed this one.

About SharpBrains

SHARPBRAINS is an independent think-tank and consulting firm providing services at the frontier of applied neuroscience, health, leadership and innovation.
SHARPBRAINS es un think-tank y consultoría independiente proporcionando servicios para la neurociencia aplicada, salud, liderazgo e innovación.

Top Articles on Brain Health and Neuroplasticity

Top 10 Brain Teasers and Illusions


Subscribe to our e-newsletter

* indicates required

Got the book?