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Playing Video Games Can Improve Spatial Attention


Amidst the clamour over whether or not violent video games turn innocent children into raging monsters, a pair of recent studies highlights the potentially positive effects that violent video games can have for our brains.

A study out of the University of Toronto, published in the Journal of Cognitive Neuroscience, has shown that playing a first-person shooter can improve people's spatial attention - which is a process by which your brain orients your cognitive abilities to different objects in space, such as an upcoming stop sign, a snake in the grass, or, in the case of an FPS, an enemy soldier. Basically, it's your brain's way of saying "Look at that! It might be important!" While other studies have shown that gamers may have better spatial attention than non-gamers, this is the first study to show that simply by playing an FPS, people's spatial attention can improve. Participants, who were not gamers, were asked to play ten hours of either Medal of Honor: Pacific Assault or puzzle-game Ballance over two weeks. The participants who played Medal of Honor showed an increase in their ability to tune out distractions in a test of spatial attention - e.g., they would be better able to pick out the enemy from the trees. Lead author Sijing Wu foresees benefits from this research such as helping older drivers improve their skills. But first, researchers have to sort out what elements of the game are creating the effect.

Read more, after the jump.

Meanwhile, a study out of Ohio State University found that playing games with a pistol-shaped controller significantly improved participants' shooting accuracy in real life. Participants were asked to play Resident Evil 4 with either the pistol controller or a traditional controller, Wii Play, which uses the Wiimote as a pointer, or Super Mario Galaxy. Later, participants were asked to fire sixteen rubber bullets at a mannequin from 6 metres (20 feet) using a training gun that had the same weight, feel, and recoil as a 9mm semi-automatic handgun. Now, here's where the "potentially positive" comes in: Participants who played RE4, which rewards players for making head-shots, with the gun controller were better at hitting the target and completed an average of seven head-shots - even without being instructed to make head-shots. This was 99% more than other participants, and after only 20 minutes of play time. The researchers found that the effect held even given participants' previous experience with firearms, their attitudes about guns, and their levels of aggression; however, experience playing shooting games was related to more head-shots and more overall hits in real life. This research backs up the practice of many military and police forces in using video game simulations to help train personnel how to use firearms; and while it does not show that video games encourage violence, the fact that it shows that gameplay improves real-life accuracy has some troubling undertones. (That last link, a well-written debunking of the idea that video games increase violence in society, is not only a great read, but the last paragraph is particularly interesting to consider in light of the Ohio State University research.)


I don't see what is troubling about this research. We've been training our kids to handle guns proficiently for centuries. I'm not a fan of guns, but even I practiced with rifles in scout camp. Of course, if you use something approximating a real gun in a virtual firing range, your accuracy with the real thing is likely to improve.

The leap to "troubling" only occurs if you believe that being more proficient with firearms is more likely to send you on a shooting rampage. All it means is that if you do go on a shooting rampage, you are less likely to hit an unintended target.

We allow kids to study martial arts without assuming they'll become ninjas and beat up their friends. That's because we teach our kids that beating up people is wrong. As long you teach a kid that shooting people isn't okay in real life, what's the harm in him knowing how to handle a pistol? People who don't know how to handle guns kill innocent people with them all the time.

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David Greenwood on Playing Video Games Can Improve Spatial Attention: I don't see what is troubling about this research. We've been training our kids to handle guns proficiently for centuries....

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