“Turn off that video game and do something productive!” scream out parents around the world on a daily basis. Certainly, the content of some video games leaves much to be desired; but how does the act of playing video games affect our thinking? Daphne Bavelier, Ph.D., and her cognitive neuroscience laboratory at the University of Geneva, Switzerland have been studying the effect of action video games on brain plasticity and learning. Professor Bavelier’s lab has produced seminal papers, including several inNature journals, showing that playing first person point action video games improves perception, attention, cognition, and, in contrast to what parents may tell their children, vision.
We had a chance to speak with Professor Bavelier about her research and its applications.
Ravi Parikh, MedGadget: Can you give us a bit of your background? How did you get involved in video games?
Daphne Bavelier: I was born and raised in Paris and did my undergraduate studies in Biology at the Ecole Normale Superieure in France. I wanted to spend a year abroad while in college, which quickly turned into 25 years of a career in Cognitive Neuroscience! I received a Ph.D. at MIT in Brain and Cognitive Science and did my postdoctoral fellowship at the Salk Institute in San Diego. During my postdoc, I became interested in brain plasticity and learning. I approached this topic by studying how the brain changes and adapts to the removal of a sensory modality such as is the case in deaf individuals.
In this context, when I moved to Rochester, we were investigating the concept of “useful fields of view” – the visual area over which information can be extracted at a brief glance and which generally decreases with aging. We were looking at whether this function may be altered in deaf individuals since previous research documented enhanced peripheral visual attention following early onset deafness. For this project, a young undergraduate lab tech, Shawn Green, programmed a version of the useful field of view task.
Surprisingly, when Shawn piloted the study on himself and a few other students, all the subjects scored near 100% – much better than what was expected based on previous studies! These were clearly outliers from the normal population. When we looked for commonalities between the pilot subjects, we found that all of them belonged to an action video game club. Considering the large effect, we changed the project from studying deafness to studying the effect of video games. A short time later, Shawn Green, who is now on the faculty at the University of Wisconsin, and I authored a Nature paper showing that action video games improved attention. We really took something that was unexpected and ran with it!
Medgadget: What a story! So how did you expand your research to cover other aspects of cognition?
Bavelier: After our original study, we wanted to ask, “What are the limits of these video game induced changes?” We turned to very low-level vision, for example acuity and contrast sensitivity, and the effect that action video game play had on them. We found that by forcing people to play action games, they actually had better vision. Interestingly, even those with normal visual acuity could improve their ability to detect contrast and make sense of visual clutter by playing action video games.
This led us to look into using action video games to improve vision in low vision patients. We joined forces with colleagues at UC Berkeley, McMaster University and the school of interactive games and media at the Rochester Institute of Technology to ask whether action games could be modified to help patients with amblyopia (AKA “lazy eye”). The theory behind this approach is that action video game play actually retrains the deficient connectivity between cortical visual centers in these patients. Interestingly, such retraining seems to happen even in adults that are thought to be past the “critical period” for visual plasticity. We actually know now that intense retraining of the amblyopic eye in the context of high action video games actually can improve acuity regardless of age.
Medgadget: Wait a second – we’ve always heard as children that playing video games was bad for our eyes. Is this not completely true?
Bavelier: Well, when it comes to action video game play, I can tell you it is certainly not true! There is evidence that certain computer-based activities – e.g. reading – are more tiring for vision than others. Reading forces the visual system to work over a very narrow range of spatial frequencies at rather high contrast; that may impact vision differently than video game play which tends to be much richer including many spatial frequencies and levels of contrast. Clearly, it is not the monitor itself, but what is actually on the screen and how you interact with it that is important for vision.
Medgadget: You mention in your TED talk that older adults are the video gamers of tomorrow. What age ranges does your research apply to?
Bavelier: Good question. Practically, visual learning is more efficacious during the “critical period” of youth. For older adults, the question remains, is the brain still plastic enough to be retrained? The dogma in the field has been that plasticity diminishes drastically in adults. Our work shows however that if you stimulate the adult brain in the right way, then you can still reveal significant plasticity. The limits of this are unknown – for example, we may not expect the same level of retraining in Alzheimer’s patients.
Medgadget: Do you believe that simply watching what is on the screen is most important, or that actually playing the game is key?
Bavelier: Having a person in control of the action, able to predict what happens next at many different time scales, is certainly important for learning. However, we have not run a study that directly compares training participants by asking them to play versus watch. When you are simply watching a video game, you can either “zone out” or try to put yourself in the player’s shoes. These may have very different effects, despite the participants just watching in both cases!
Medgadget: Was there any gender bias in your effect?
Bavelier: We did not find a gender difference in our studies. The bias seems to be in what females decide to play – usually social or interactive games (e.g. Dance Dance Revolution). Males on the other hand tend to pick action video games, which we have shown to be very useful in improving skills as varied as attention, vision or mental rotation. However, if you subject females to action games, then they actually exhibit the same (or even in some studies) greater improvement as males. This is probably because most males have already been exposed to action games so they have less room to improve. However, this is a positive story because it shows that even if you don’t like action games, you can still learn from them!
Medgadget: Many action video games are very violent, which complicates this question a bit. Do you think the type of video game matters for the learning benefit?
Bavelier: The type of game certainly matters. With Tetris, for example, we don’t get the same enhancement in attentional skills. There are a number of game components that are specific to first and third person shooter games that seem to be key in improving perception and attention.
Whether violence is a key ingredient remains unknown. Note that action games do not have to be violent by definition. Lets look at the mechanics: most action games emphasize precise aiming, control over where you go, and need for divided attention. It is perfectly doable to achieve the same goals in nonviolent games. Here is a possible scenario: you are on another planet with the mission of rescuing all sick animals. You need to shoot medicine at them in order to save them. Different diseases require different medicine, so this emphasizes problem solving and control. Furthermore, if sick animals touch you, you would lose health. You can recreate the same action game dynamics in a non-violent context – we are working on this with a great team of game designers!
Medgadget: Have you spoken to video game designers about potentially operationalizing this?
Bavelier: Yes, we received a National Science Foundation grant to create an action video game for 7-11 year-olds. The game would target “number sense” – the ability to quickly determine how many objects are in front of us. Greater number sense has been correlated with better future school performance in mathematics. The game would involve different number sense challenges. It engages the same mechanics of traditional action video games but without the violence. This is a really exciting project in collaboration with an innovative game publishing company (E-line Media) and the Joan Ganz Cooney Center, as well as colleagues at Johns Hopkins and the University of Wisconsin.
Medgadget: Last question – tell us about the medical implications of video gaming. How can this be used by clinicians to improve defects?
Bavelier: Last summer, we had a conference held by the US Office of Science and Technology Policy and the National Science Foundation. The conference engaged several different fields, with people ranging from the entertainment industry to neuroscience research. We were looking at what it will take to create video games that users will want to play and that improve neurological health – all backed up by independent evidence-based research. There is certainly motivation within the scientific community and the entertainment industry to transition from good research to applications. This push is exemplified by meetings such as ESCoNS (http://www.escons.org/), which are bringing together experts in the entertainment industry and brain scientists.
Check out Professor Bavelier’s TED Talk:
Link: Bavelier lab…
Wall Street Journal: When Gaming is Good for You
Nature: Action video games modify visual selective attention.