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Playing for Attention

Find out how video games make your mind faster and sharper. All facts are linked to the original research articles.

Common sense has led many to believe that gaming would decrease someone’s capacity to keep their attention on tasks outside the game world. The reasoning goes that the constant feed of interesting stimuli in games would numb gamers out to the slower pace of day-to-day life. Might there be truth to this?

At first glance, there seems to be. Research has found a link between gaming (1 hour or more a day) and ADHD, as well as lower school performance. The researchers hypothesize that games take away from time that should be spent on school work, as well as damaging a person’s capacity to focus on a given task. The key term here is “hypothesize”. Google couldn’t tell me if these hypotheses have been followed up on.

However, Google did tell me about some interesting research comparing the attentional skills of gamers with those of non-gamers. Gamers significantly outperform non-gamers on three tasks testing visual attention. (References here and here)

First off, gamers deal better with so-called “crowding”. Crowding is the phenomenon that an object is harder to spot when it is closely surrounded by similar objects. Think of picking out a friend in a crowd. The thicker the crowd is around your friend, the harder it gets. The faster and more accurate you remain at picking out your friend in an increasingly thick crowd, the better your “visual resolution”. That means that your brain is better able to deal with the crowding effect because it processes the visual field faster and more accurately. If you relate this to spotting enemies in the bushes of Shooter X or avoiding hurdles on the road in Racer Y, then it might not be surprising that gamers out perform non-gamers on an attentional test of crowding.

Gamers are not only better at picking out a target object from a tangle of other objects. Gamers can also keep track of more objects at the same time. One way to test this was looking at how fast the research subjects could count the amount of objects shown on the screen. There are two ways of counting objects, counting and subitizing. While counting involves going over the objects one by one and keeping an inner tally of how many you have already passed by, subitizing is instant. Imagine a card game where all the numbers in the corners of the cards are removed. The average person would still not need to count the spades on a 5 of spades card. You instantly see that there are 5 symbols. That is subitizing. The higher the amount, the harder it becomes to subitize. It all depends on how many items you can keep track of at the same time. Tying this back to gaming, the researchers found that gamers can on average subitize two items more than non-gamers can. This is reflected in their response time as a person’s transition from subitizing items to counting items shows a sharp increase in response time.

A third perk of being a gamer is apparently that your field of visual attention is wider. This means that a gamer is better at attending to visual cues that are farther removed from the center of vision. It is normal that the farther an object goes into your peripheral vision, the harder it is to attend to it. In gamers this decline in performance is significantly less than in non-gamers.

The previous three findings had to do with visual attention. When a phenomenon is not dependent on a specific sense (sight, smell, etc.) then it is called “amodal”. The ability to multitask is such an amodal attentional skill. Conscious multitasking of high level activities is not a matter of actually doing multiple things at the same time, but is about switching your attention between the different tasks so quickly that you keep them all running simultaneously. In other words, multitasking is the attentional equivalent of keeping multiple plates (tasks) spinning and not of being an attentional octopus. An important factor in multitasking is your “attentional blink”. This blink is the amount of time (in milliseconds) it takes you to respond to a second stimuli that closely follows a first. There is basically a slight downtime of milliseconds right after responding to a stimulus. Your attention “blinks”. The shorter this time is, the more efficiently you can switch between tasks and respond to a stimulus-rich environment. Gamers have a significantly shorter attentional blink than non-gamers.

All these results have a big “but”. The results only hold for regular players of action games. It has been suggested that a game needs to have four key features for the benefits to take hold. It should be fast-paced and unpredictable, contain an appropriate difficulty curve, and link visual input to motor output (like aiming at enemies). This means the one game genre that is most criticized for its (feared) negative effects on players, offers the most benefits: shooters. Not all shooters will create these effects as bug-ridden software and poor design choices can negate all positive effects. In the same way, some well-designed racing games or beat-em ups might hit all the right buttons.

Through this whole discussion the question remains if playing action games improves attentional capacity, or if people who are more focused are naturally drawn to gaming. The same researches that uncovered the perks of gaming, also tested this. They let a group of non-gamers play Medal of Honor for one hour for ten days straight and found their performance on the attention tasks improved with leaps and bounds. So games don’t weaken your attention. They sharpen it.

Yet what about the ADHD patients and low school performance among gamers mentioned earlier? First off, that research did not distinguish between playing action games or other games, so it’s impossible to draw any conclusions. However, a possible counter hypothesis might be that ADHD patients enjoy training their weaker attentional skills even more than the average Joe. Keep in mind that games give instant feedback. If you get distracted in the average shooter, you will eat bullets. Of course, many ADHD patients need more time to finish their homework, so the fact that gaming might be more rewarding to them might make it more a threat than a help to their school performance.

Considering the positive effects of action games, can’t we use them to help ADHD patients and others with attentional deficits? I am afraid that is not an exceptionally ground-breaking question as there is already a patent out there for gaming therapy for ADHD’ers. It involves some 1900-style helmet sketches to keep track of brain activity. I did not manage to find out if this ever led to a practical implementation and what the results might have been.

The same paper that pinned down the crucial attention-boosting features of video games, also hypothesizes about the possible therapeutic applications of attention-sharpening games. One group that might benefit are the elderly. One of the main reasons for people to lose their drivers license with age is that their response times and visual attention decline past the point of public safety. These are exactly the skills that action games train.

Even more spectacular would be if we could help people with brain damage recover some of their attentional faculties. On occasion a brain seizure can lead to “neglect”. A patient with visual neglect will not be able to pay attention to any visual stimuli in a certain part of their field of vision. The borders of the field of neglect are different per person, but imagine a patient with neglect of the left half of her visual field. This patient will only eat food from the right side of her plate. She will only apply makeup to the right side of her face. She will only respond to people that are in her right field of vision. Patients with neglect can see everything, yet they cannot manage to attend to certain areas in their visual field. This is caused by brain damage. The only way to rehabilitate such patients is for the damaged brain area to recover, or for another brain region to take over the lost functionality. Current therapies have little to no effect. Some people do recover, but this is almost always due to the brain healing on its own.

Now the question has arisen if action games could help neglect patients. It all depends on if the positive effects of gaming are due to strategic improvements in thinking, or if the brain itself becomes optimized at a neurological level. Hopefully, research will continue in this area.

Does the idea of shooters healing brain patients or keeping elderly citizens in the drivers seat sound outrageous to you? Then please click through to the links dotted throughout this article. And if you are young and healthy and don’t see how this is relevant to you, think of how visual attention and multitasking shape your life. Efficient multitasking is key for managers, a higher visual resolution makes skim reading so much faster, keeping track of traffic in your peripheral vision is key to being a good driver, leading groups of tourists or children both ask you to keep track of multiple ‘targets’ at the same time. I could go on, but the bottom line is, visual attention and multitasking pervade our day-to-day life. If you feel yourself lacking, try some video game training.

Reposted from my blog at

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