Vision Quest

Contact-Vision QuestVideo games have taken quite a beating from social science researchers: Past studies have linked excessive game playing among kids and teens to bad grades, aggression and even "permissive attitudes" toward drug use and unsafe sex, according to a number of papers published in the Archives of Pediatrics & Adolescent Medicine. So video game enthusiasts may take some comfort in two recent nuggets of good news.

In one study, Michigan State University researchers looked at video game habits and academic performance in 482 12-year-olds. Although avid video gamers did have substantially lower grades than their peers, they also had better visual-spatial skills - a finding backed up by other studies of both children and adults.

Lead author Linda Jackson says visual-spatial proficiency could eventually help these kids master higher math. "We are talking about the ability to track moving objects in three-dimensional space - something you do in video games and in, for example, matrix algebra," Jackson explains. On the other hand, she notes that video games didn't help her middle schoolers' math skills, and if low gpas keep hard-core gamers from taking ap calculus or even finishing school, their visual-spatial abilities may not matter much beyond Grand Theft Auto.

A key ingredient in the visual-spatial benefit is revealed in a separate study, published in Nature Neuroscience. An American-Israeli team found that violent shoot 'em up games (specifically, Call of Duty 2 and Unreal Tournament4) improved an aspect of vision called contrast sensitivity: the ability to spot subtle differences in shades of gray. That's not only the main limiting factor in how well we see, but also something that scientists haven't been able to improve without corrective lenses or surgery.

The Nature Neuroscience study first compared skilled action-game players with age-matched controls, and found that the virtual sharpshooters were consistently more contrast-sensitive. They also found that nine weeks of intensive training on either of the action games improved contrast sensitivity by 43 percent, while the same amount of training on a more cerebral game, The Sims 2, had no such benefit. "We think that the games are taking the brain's visual cortex to the limits," says Uri Polat of Tel Aviv University, one of the study's authors. His team plans to use the games' underlying principles to develop new therapies for conditions like amblyopia ("lazy eye"), although they'll probably have to tone down the violent imagery to get parents and doctors on board.

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