for National Geographic News
Spending hours in front of the computer trying to single-handedly win World War II in the shoot-'em-up action video game Medal of Honor may serve more purpose than killing time.
According to a pair of researchers at the University of Rochester in New York, such action video games train the brain to better process certain visual information.
Action video gamers tend to be more attune to their surroundings while performing tasks like driving down a residential street, where they may be more likely to pick out a child running after a ball than a non-video gamer.
The research also suggests that action game playing might be a useful tool to rehabilitate visually impaired patients or to train soldiers for combat.
"It is certainly good training for people in situations where they need to detect things in their visual environment at any time in any location, like ground troops going through uncharted territory," said Daphne Bavelier, an associate professor of brain and cognitive sciences at the University of Rochester.
Bavelier and her graduate student Shawn Green stumbled upon this field of research while testing the visual-attention skills of deaf people as part of their on-going studies into how experiences shape the organization of the visual system.
"Shawn realized that his own visual attentional skills were abnormally good," said Bavelier. "As Shawn is an avid video game player, and definitely the only video game player of the two of us, we decided to test the hypothesis that this video game experience was the origin of the observed differences."
According to the experiments, which are reported in the May 29 issue of Nature, people who play action video games can process visual information more quickly and can track 30 percent more objects than non video game players.
"[Bavelier and Green] showed that playing action games can increase attention ability to a certain extent and that looks promising," said Alan Pope, an engineering psychologist at NASA's Langley Research Center in Hampton, Virginia.
Pope and his colleague Olafur Palsson, a clinical psychologist at the Eastern Virginia Medical School in Norfolk, have designed custom-made video games that help children with attention deficit disorder by teaching them how to control their brainwave patterns.
Collectively, said Pope, his and Palsson's research and that of Bavelier and Green shows that video games are good for something and thus should not always get a "bad rap."
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