According to a study published in the Journal of Experimental Psychology: Human Perception and Performance, playing action video games can enhance visuospatial attention.
The study was conducted by C. Shawn Green and Daphne Bavelier of the University of Rochester and was published in 2006.
Visuospatial attention refers to the ability to focus attention on relevant visual stimuli.
To investigate the effects of playing action video games on visuospatial attention, Green and Bavelier conducted three separate experiments.
The first experiment recruited eight male action video game players and eight males that did not play action video games. These sixteen participants then completed a perceptual load paradigm task, in which the participant was required to find a specific target in the midst of a number of distracting items. “By contrasting central and peripheral distractors, this paradigm allows us to compare attentional resources across space in video-game players and non-video-game players,” as Green and Bavelier explain.
According to Green and Bavelier, the first experiment indicated “an increase in attentional resources available in the video game population.”
The second experiment used the useful field of vision task (UFOV task) to assess the “distribution of visual attention across the visual scene.” This experiment recruited another sixteen male video-game players and non-video-game players, none of which had participated in the first experiment. According to Green and Bavelier, this second experiment found that those who played action video games displayed “enhanced localization abilities under all conditions tested” and that “video-game experience enhances visual processing across a large portion of the visual field.”
The previous two experiments only found an association between enhancements in visuospatial attention and playing action video games. To test whether playing action video games actually caused improvements in visuospatial attention, Green and Bavelier conducted a third experiment. In this experiment, half of the participants played an action video game while the other half played a video game that made heavy demands on visuomotor coordination, such as hand-eye coordination, but did not require much visuospatial attention. (The action video game was the first person shooter Unreal Tournament 2004 and the non-action video game was Tetris.)
The participants in the third experiment were 32 male and female non-video-game players. They were required to play whichever game they were assigned to for a total of 30 hours and tested for changes in visuospatial attention.
Green and Bavelier found that those who played Unreal Tournament 2004 showed greater improvements in visuospatial attention than those who played Tetris.
According to Green and Bavelier, the high demand for visuospatial attention that many modern action video games place on the player may cause the observed improvement. As they explain,
“Many of today’s action video games are remarkably visually challenging. They regularly have unnaturally stringent attentional requirements, much more so than any everyday situation to which one may be exposed. For instance, in many video games, multiple items must processed simultaneously, at task that would benefit from additional attentional resources across space.”
In 2009, Karen Murphy and Amy Spencer of Griffith University tried to replicate a previous study of Green and Bavelier published in Nature which “showed video game players to have superior temporal attention, spatial distribution of attention and enhanced attentional capacity compared to non-video game players,” but found no significant differences between video-game players and non-video-game players. Their results were published in the Journal of Articles in Support of the Null Hypothesis.
Murphy and Spencer suggest that “further research examining these ideas is needed before we are able to fully understand the impact of video game playing on visual attention.”
Green, C. S. & Bavelier, D. (2006). Effect of action video games on the spatial distribution of visuospatial attention. Journal of Experimental Psychology: Human Perception and Performance, Vol 32, No 6:1465-1478.
Murphy, K. & Spencer, A. (2009). Playing video games does not make for better visual attention skills. Journal of Articles in Support of the Null Hypothesis, Vol 6, No 1: 1-20. Full text: http://www.jasnh.com/pdf/Vol6-No1.pdf