A study that targets the latest cultural phenomenon suggests playing action-packed video games, such as last year's blockbuster, "Grand Theft Auto 3," enhances certain visual skills, with marked improvements noted in as few as 10 hours at the computer controls.
The researchers, at the University of Rochester, N.Y., who conducted the experiments with 18-to-23-year-old college undergraduates, said their surprising findings carry a range of implications, from sharpening the skills of drivers or soldiers to helping stroke victims recover some of their lost visual capacity.
They are quick to point out, however, they are neither suggesting time at the screen can ever replace hitting the books nor condoning the kind of gratuitous violence exemplified by the thrills-and-chills racing game that raked in nearly $350 million as it climbed to the top of the charts of the $30-billion-a-year global game publishing business.
"Our results do not mean that kids can tell their parents, 'I'm going to play video games instead of doing homework because they're good for me," lead study author Daphne Bavelier, associate professor of brain and cognitive sciences, said in a telephone interview.
"We have studied visual selective attention and not the kind of attention necessary to learn to read or to solve math problems," she emphasized. "The attention necessary for academic achievement has little in common with the ability to monitor the visual field for new objects."
Bavelier -- who also is a member of the Center for Visual Science -- and one of her students, C. Shawn Green, found action-game aficionados pursuing their hobby several times a week for at least six months outshone their non-gaming counterparts at monitoring complex visual environments.
"Several game players even achieved perfect scores on tests barely doable for non-game players," Green noted.
The experienced game-players could keep track of more objects simultaneously and process rapidly changing visual information with greater speed and efficiency, the researchers found.
"Players can process visual information more quickly and can track 30 percent more objects than non-players," Bavelier said. "Most people can pay attention to about three objects, but the players usually tracked five or more, and they could react to the objects much faster."
Such skills are of particular benefit to people needing to process a wide array of visual clues at once, such as drivers who might simultaneously have to note a dog darting between cars and a changing traffic light, or military personnel patrolling enemy territory, scientists said.
"Our findings have practical implications for two main populations, people whose jobs require visual selective attention and patients with visual selective attention deficits," Bavelier told UPI.
The latter would include stroke patients who might be trained to regain some of the seeing capacity lost in the brain attack, she said.
"There's work showing that generally stimulating interactive tasks help develop the young brain, and help preserve function in the elderly -- 'use it or lose it,'" said Dr. Marc Nuwer, director of the clinical neurophysiology program at the University of California, Los Angeles.
"Occupational therapy also uses such strategies for training brain injured patients," he told UPI. "They learn specific tasks, but doing so helps them more generally in coping with new tasks facing them in the future."
Dr. Randall Olson, the John A. Moran Presidential Professor and Chair of Ophthalmology and Visual Sciences at the University of Utah in Salt Lake City and director of the John A. Moran Eye Center, found it an interesting study that addressed a major preoccupation of the younger generation.
"Video game playing has become a significant part of life in our culture," Nuwer said.
A study of more than 1,200 families conducted by the Annenberg Public Policy Center at the University of Pennsylvania, for example, found children spent an average of 4.5 hours a day in front of a screen in 2000, an increase of a third of an hour over the previous year. That means, each year, the average child is thus engaged for more than 1,642 hours -- the equivalent of 24 hours a day, every day for more than two months.
"It is good for researchers to study it, to understand whether it affects the brain in ways that we expected," Nuwar told UPI.
The researchers were surprised at the speed with which newcomers to the action-video-game circuit improved their seeing ability.
An hour a day for 10 days spent hunting down Nazis to liberate France and Belgium in the World War II-depicting game, "Medal of Honor," sufficed to boost the novices' range of attention-related visual skills notably.
"Above and beyond the fact that action video games can actually be beneficial, our findings are surprising because they show that the learning induced by video game playing occurs quite fast and generalizes outside the gaming experience," Bavelier said. "Therefore, although video-game playing may seem to be rather mindless, it is capable of radically altering visual attentional processing."
The researchers now plan to design an action video game they can modify at will to see just what aspects of gaming allows such efficient learning. With that knowledge, they hope to create a non-violent program to help stroke patients recover lost visual awareness.
"This is a nice study that can capture some public imagination (on) how they can keep the brain growing stronger for the young and the old," Nuwar told UPI. "For youngsters, though, don't become one-dimensional; new experiences should be encouraged of all sorts -- not just video games."