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Play again? Video games such as Wolfenstein may have one redeeming value: Players have good visual attention.

Video Games Score High for Attention

SAN FRANCISCO--Researchers are hoping their children won't hear about the results of a study presented here at a meeting of the Cognitive Neuroscience Society on 15 April. The study found that avid video game players score better on a range of attention tasks. Although it's not clear how well these skills translate to real-life, some earlier work suggests that players might be better drivers.

Psychologists use a variety of tests to assess visual attention. With practice, people can improve their performance, but those improvements have been pretty specific; change the test ever so slightly, and people start from scratch. So cognitive neuroscientist Daphne Bavelier of the University of Rochester in New York and then-undergraduate Shawn Green were surprised to find that Green and some of his video-game-playing friends aced a perception test, spotting briefly flashed circles even at the very edges of their visual fields.

Curious, the researchers systematically tested more gamers--people who play video games for at least an hour at least four times a week--and nonplayers on several other tests. In one, a cluster of dots was flashed in the middle of a computer screen for 50 milliseconds, and subjects had to say how many dots were there. Nonplayers could count no more than three; game hounds reliably counted five at a time. They scored more points in other tests as well.

To test whether playing games really deserved credit for the improved performance, the researchers also trained nonplayers on a video game called Wolfenstein ("It's about shooting Nazis," says Green) for a week. Indeed, the novices improved their performance on the attention tasks, although they didn't live up to the cracks' standards.

"It's very interesting work," says cognitive neuroscientist Marcia Grabowecky of Northwestern University in Evanston, Illinois. She suspects that video game players do so well on a variety of tests--in contrast to people who get better at only one attention test--because they play a range of games that require quick responses and divided attention. Studies show that good peripheral attention is a hallmark of a good driver, at least in senior citizens. But Grabowecky worries that video games probably also train players to be reckless--not to mention to shoot first and ask questions later.

Related sites
Daphne Bavelier's home page
Wolfenstein fan site