Go ahead, pick up that controller

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Recent research shows that 90 percent of school-aged kids regularly play video games, and when they go to bed, their parents are picking up the controllers — 70 percent of “heads of household” routinely try their hands at digital tests of skill ranging from Call of Duty to Wii bowling. In fact, the mean age of gamers is 33 and rising.

Gaming has become such a widespread pastime that when Rebecca Achtman, visiting assistant professor of psychology, was doing research on the effects of video games, she discovered it was something of a challenge to find study participants who had never played. She also discovered that playing video games has positive effects on the man or woman behind the controller.

While she was working as a postdoctoral research fellow in the Department of Brain & Cognitive Sciences at the University of Rochester, Achtman and her colleagues discovered that, according to certain measures of vision and attention, individuals who play action video games exhibit superior performance compared to their non-video-game-playing peers.

“They’re better able to pay attention to multiple objects at once, compared to people who don’t play video games,” Achtman explains. Gamers also have better contrast sensitivity, she adds, “which means they can see smaller differences between shades of gray” — a distinction that might seem insignificant, but affects a number of important real-life situations, like your ability to drive through fog.

In order to better understand how gaming affects these measures, Achtman and her colleagues gathered a group of participants who did not play video games and tested them. They then split subjects into two groups, one that played action games (i.e. Call of Duty) and a control group that played less suspenseful games, like The Sims and Tetris. Participants played games, on average, 40 minutes a day — some training a total of  10 hours, spread out over two weeks, while others played 50 hours, spread out over 10 weeks. When the subjects were tested again, researchers found that the action group had shown significant improvement in low-level vision and control of attention, whereas the control group had not.

So should we all buy gaming consoles so that we can start honing our contrast sensitivity? “Although we’re talking about video games being advantageous in some ways or showing positive effects, I would still never say, ‘Go and play 40 hours of video games a week,’” Achtman says with a laugh. “Everything in moderation.”

She’s excited, though, about some of the practical applications of her research: rehabilitating patients with vision problems, training the workforce (e.g. arthroscopic surgeons, pilots, and military personnel), and other areas of education. “At Denison, that’s something that everyone here is interested in — we’re here to learn,” she explains. “So the question is, how can we leverage these video games to help us to learn in such a way that you might not even realize it’s happening?”

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