Research into video games typically examines whether they can cause harm, with scientists trying to determine whether games will turn players into psychopathic killers. It’s nice to see some positive news for a change, with a paper published yesterday in Nature Neuroscience suggesting that video games can actually be used to improve your eyesight.
Researchers at the University of Rochester in New York and Tel Aviv University in Israel were interested in looking at playing video games as a way to improve one’s contrast sensitivity, which is the ability to detect differences in shade of grey on a uniform background. Poor contrast sensitivity is one of the main reasons for bad eyesight, and whilst it can be corrected by glasses or contact lenses it is thought that changes in the brain can also have an effect.
Renjie Li lead a study comparing a group of 10 video game players to a group who did not play video games. All participants were male and aged 19 to 25. It turned out that the gamers showed a slight increase in contrast sensitivity, but that doesn’t necessarily prove anything – it could be that people with better eyesight are more likely to play video games.
To see if the effect could be replicated in non-gamers, the team asked 13 people to play games intensively for a 50 hours over a 9 week period. Six were assigned to Unreal Tournament 2004 and Call of Duty 2, both high-action first person shoot gamers that require quick reflexes in order to defeat your opponents.
The remaining seven were asked to play the more sedate The Sims 2, in which players must build a house and look after a family. As an aside, participants were paid $8/hour for their time – I wonder where I can sign up to get $400 for just playing games?
After 50 hours gaming, those playing house with The Sims 2 showed little variation in their contrast sensitivity. The action gamers however showed a significant improvement, demonstrating that fast-paced games really can give you better eyesight.
The researchers noted in their paper that contrary to popular opinion, “time spent in front of a computer screen is not necessarily detrimental to vision.” They suggest it could be that video games find a place in eye clinics as a complement to existing eye-correction techniques, but I’m not expecting to be handed a controller the next time I got to the opticians.
If first person shooters can help your vision, I wonder what effects other games have? Wii Fit can certainly be used to get into shape, but perhaps other benefits are waiting to be discovered. Until then, I’ll continue playing my Xbox safe in the knowledge that my eyes are improving with with every headshot.
Renjie Li, Uri Polat, Walter Makous, & Daphne Bavelier (2009). Enhancing the contrast sensitivity function through action video game training Nature Neuroscience