Behind the Headlines

Monday March 30 2009

In experiments, people who played action games had better CSF

“Forget carrots, playing video games helps you see in the dark,” reported The Independent. It said that research suggests that a person’s nighttime vision gets better after playing action games. The newspaper said that scientists have found that games involving aiming and shooting can significantly improve the ability to “see objects in twilight conditions, when colours fade into different shades of grey”. It continued that playing video games could be just as effective as contact lenses, glasses or surgery in improving visual 'contrast sensitivity' - the ability to distinguish objects that do not stand out clearly against their background.

This small study found that regular players of action games had better contrast sensitivity than non-gamers, and suggests that playing video games can improve this ability. As a treatment for poor eyesight generally though, gaming is unlikely to replace conventional approaches in the near future.

Where did the story come from?

The research was carried out by Doctor Renjie Li and colleagues from the University of Rochester in New York and Tel Aviv University in Israel. The work was funded in part by grants from the US National Institutes of Health, the James S McDonnell Foundation, the Office of Naval Research and the Israel Science Foundation. The study was published in the peer-reviewed medical journal Nature Neuroscience.

What kind of scientific study was this?

This observational study looked at an element of vision called contrast sensitivity function (CSF), which is the ability to see things that do not stand out from their background.

This study compared the CSF of expert action video game players (defined as someone who plays five hours of action video games per week during the past six months) with non-action game players of the same age and gender. The researchers were interested in whether there were differences in the contrast sensitivity of video game players, i.e. their ability to detect small increases in shades of grey. The researchers wanted to test if playing video games could improve a person’s ability to detect objects that are not clearly outlined and that do not stand out from their background.

The researchers report that contrast sensitivity is one of the “main limiting factors in a wide variety of visual tasks” and one that is most easily compromised. They say that changes in the eye do not entirely account for the loss of contrast sensitivity and that the brain must be involved too.

They compared the CSF between action gamers and non-action gamers and then assessed whether intensive training in action computer gaming could improve contrast sensitivity.

The researchers did this by dividing a group of 19 to 29-year-old non-action game players into two groups. One group was asked to play 50 hours over nine weeks of the action games Unreal Tournament 2004 (Atari) and Call of Duty 2 (Infinity Ward). The other group were asked to play The Sims, a non-action game that also requires concentration but no complex visual tasks such as targeting. The participants’ CSF were measured before and after the gaming period. There were six to 13 gamers in each of the groups tested.

What were the results of the study?

The study found that compared to age and gender-matched non-action gamers, those who played action games had better CSF.

In the experiments, those who played the action games had better CSF than those playing SIMS. The group's ability to detect different shades of grey was 43-58% better on average than people who had not played the action games. However, the researchers say these increases were small in terms of the units of contrast sensitivity function measured.

What interpretations did the researchers draw from these results?

The researchers conclude that video games may be a useful complement to the eye correction techniques that are routinely used to improve eyesight. They say it is likely to be most useful for “central deficits” such as amblyopia. This is a condition (also known as lazy eye) that causes poor vision in children and is thought to be caused by underdevelopment of the nerve pathways for vision in the brain.

What does the NHS Knowledge Service make of this study?

This small observational study appears to suggest that playing action games that require complex visual tasks (such as targeting) can improve some aspects of eyesight, notably the contrast sensitivity function.

The researchers suggest that this indicates that playing video games could have potential for improving some conditions such as amblyopia. However, this will need further testing in people with this condition. As a treatment for poor eyesight generally though, gaming is unlikely to replace conventional approaches in the near future.

Analysis by Bazian

Edited by NHS Choices

Links to the headlines

Video games 'can improve vision'. BBC News, March 30 2009

Forget carrots, video games boost night vision. The Independent, March 30 2009

Links to the science

Li R, Polat U, Makous W and Bavelier D. Enhancing the contrast sensitivity function through action video game training. Nature Neuroscience 2009; published online: March 29

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