Science Watch

Can't find your keys on a crowded coffee table? You may want to ask a dedicated video-game player for help, says Alan Castel, PhD, a psychology professor at the University of California, Los Angeles. With thousands of hours of practice scanning a screen for enemy characters and useful objects, people who play games such as "Half-Life" are lightning fast at visual searches, according to research by Castel and others.

"There are certainly some benefits in playing video games," says Castel. "You can hone this system and become better at detecting targets in the periphery and locating things you're looking for."

Exactly how video-game players optimize their scanning remains a mystery, but a new study published in the December issue of the Journal of Experimental Psychology: Human Perception and Performance (JEP:HPP) (Vol. 32, No. 6, pages 1,465-1,478) sheds some light on the issue. Researchers at the University of Rochester found that video-game players seem to monitor a larger field of vision-that is, they can keep an eye on the center of a screen and the periphery at the same time. What's more, they may allocate their attention more flexibly than non-video-game players, budgeting additional attention to the center of the screen, for instance, when asked to identify the shape that pops up there.

Researchers have long known that training can improve visual attention, notes study author Daphne Bavelier, PhD. Air traffic controllers and fighter pilots spend hours on simulations to hone their visual search skills. However, these training sessions don't easily transfer to other situations. The attention-control benefits of video-game playing seem to be broader, and might eventually be harnessed to help people with impaired visual systems due to brain injury, Bavelier says.

"We are looking for a tool where we can promote plasticity and rewiring of the visual system in a wide sense," she notes.

Distractions? No problem

Bavelier and her co-author C. Shawn Green, a fourth-year graduate student in the department of brain and cognitive sciences at the University of Rochester, had the difficult task of finding eight college students with almost no experience playing video games. Recruiting an equal number of students who reported playing action video games such as "Counter-Strike" and "Marvel vs. Capcom" at least three days a week for the past six months proved much easier, Bavelier says.

Both groups of participants rested their heads on a chin rest, and looked at a square in the center of the screen. Then, a target-a circle containing a filled triangle-flashed at random at one of 24 possible locations on the screen. The screen then filled with a jumble of lines, circles and squares for about a second, and afterward participants tried to recall where on the screen they had seen the target.

Sometimes the task was more difficult because of the presence of up to 47 distracter blocks scattered across the screen. Also, for half of the trials, participants identified whether a centrally presented target shape had been a triangle or a diamond.

In every condition, the video-game players were markedly better at recalling where the target occurred on the screen than the non-video-game players-getting it right about 80 percent of the time, while the non-video-game players correctly located the target about 30 percent of the time.

The video-game players managed to keep up this performance regardless of where the target occurred on the screen-a remarkable feat, notes Green. In fact, a recent literature review, published in Trends in Cognitive Science (Vol. 10, No. 11, pages 512-518), found that deaf people, too, are good at locating targets on the periphery, but their performance locating targets toward the center of the screen suffers as a result.

"The [video-game players] largely just have more attention to allocate, as opposed to the deaf, who appear to have relatively the same amount, but allocate it more toward the periphery," Green says.

And finally, the video-game players' performance did not suffer even when they had the additional task of identifying the target shape.

"We show that they can do the central task as well as the nongame players, and they are still better at the peripheral task," Bavelier notes.

Lightning-fast thumbs

In addition to being more accurate, video-game players are much faster visual searchers than non-video-game players, according to a study by Castel, psychology professor Jay Pratt, PhD, and graduate student Emily Drummond, both at the University of Toronto, published in Acta Psychologica (Vol. 199, No. 2, pages 217-230). The participants in this study-20 video-game players and 20 non-video-game players-started out looking at the center of a screen. Then, a distracter square flashed on the left or the right. After a delay of 50 to 950 milliseconds, the target appeared on either side of the screen and participants responded by quickly pressing a space bar.

Regardless of the condition, it took the non-video-game players about 20 milliseconds longer to press the space bar. But other than the average time difference, both groups showed similar difficulty ignoring the distracter square when the delay between it and the target's appearance was less than 125 milliseconds.

That suggests that while the video-game players are faster, they are not necessarily better at controlling their visual attention, says Castel.

"We found that they seem to use similar search strategies, but the video-game players are more efficient in terms of minding targets and making faster responses," he notes.

The difference in efficiency, however, could be a result of self selection-people who are good at visual scanning to begin with might be drawn to video games, notes Castel. To address that possibility, Green and Bavelier conducted a follow-up experiment, also described in the JEP:HPP paper, where they recruited 32 non-video-game players, and assigned half to play the puzzle game "Tetris" and half to play the action game "Unreal Tournament 2004." The researchers suspected that playing Tetris-a game where puzzle pieces always drop from the top of the screen-would not improve participants' visual-scanning abilities. Games like Unreal Tournament feature hazards and enemies coming from all different directions on the screen, and should make people faster at processing visual information, Bavelier says.

The participants played their assigned video game at the researchers' lab for 30 hours over the course of about 30 days.

As expected, the action-video-game players became better at a target-location task than the "Tetris" players, though the two groups performed equally well prior to training.

Bavelier and her colleagues will soon try a similar training procedure for people with visual deficits as a result of brain injury. However, they won't ask patients to play games like "Unreal Tournament." For one thing, most action games are too fast-paced for severely impaired patients, and many people find their violence disturbing, she notes.

"We don't think the violence helps people's visuospatial attention; we think the fact that you don't know where and when things will happen is what's important," she notes. "You can remove all the gore and still be effective. You can have a game where you catch butterflies coming from all different directions."

And while video-game playing might improve even healthy people's visual search skills, the hours of game playing-and not doing other, more educational activities-might not be worth it, notes Castel.

"I don't want to make it sound like video games are good for you. Learning a second language and playing a musical instrument can lead to benefits too," he notes. "There are many ways to train your brain."