Dr. Uri Polat of Tel Aviv University's Goldschlager Eye Institute 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 standardized visual test to 22 game-playing teenagers, 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 color or shades of gray.
"As a father and brain scientist, I was quite concerned when my kids were growing up and playing video games," says Polat, 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."
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.
A Replacement for Eye Surgery?Among the test subjects, researchers measured an improvement of up to 58% in contrast sensitivity. And the effects were greatest for players who were very skilled at playing first-person "shooting" games. Until now, eye specialists believed that it was not possible to improve this kind of visual sensitivity without medical intervention.
"As scientists and clinicians, we'd normally think about improving this aspect of vision by changing something in the optics of the eye, through surgery, for example. But we were able to show that action-oriented video games can improve the brain's ability to process visual information, effects which seem to last months after the game playing has stopped," says Dr. Polat, who also explores the visual systems of patients at Tel Ha Shomer Hospital's Chaim Sheba Medical Center in Israel.
While a teen's social skills may suffer from addictive game playing, the effects on the visual system appear to be positive, the researchers concluded. Building on Dr. Polat's previous research in treating the "lazy eye" phenomenon, the Tel Aviv University-Rochester team hopes to apply video game playing to improve eyesight in adults, teens and children.
Results were published in Nature Neuroscience.
(*) You're singing that song in your head right now, aren't you?