Video Games Are Ruining (I Mean Improving) My Vision!

Video Games Are Ruining (I Mean Improving) My Vision!

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We were told staring at our screens hurts our eyesight, and stunts our social lives! Maybe mom was wrong – maybe video games don’t deserve the bad rep they’ve had for so long.

Historically, when kids weren’t in school, time was mainly spent roaming the outdoors, building forts and playing games with friends while exploring the neighborhood. Nowadays, that neighborhood is the virtual universe of video games.

So what effects can this increasingly popular hobby have on these passionate gamers?

Does the amount of screen time you commit to equals an associated decrease in your eyesight?

Could this mean that video games can potentially provide those with lower vision abilities the opportunity to improve?

The answers may surprise you!

It has been an established belief that too much screen time leads to vision problems, but studies indicate that this may be a myth, especially when it comes to the hand-eye interactivity provided by video games. On average, non-gamers typically have normal vision. But those who play video games regularly have surprisingly better vision outcomes in tests than those who don’t play.

Studies conducted by researchers at McMaster University indicates that playing first person shooter games can actually help improve vision, especially video games with lots of action, such as the ‘shoot-’em-up’ variety. This category of video games helps people with conditions like crossed eye (strabismus), lazy eye (amblyopia) and even cataracts.

The many visual benefits of video games

There are two major visual benefits from playing action video games.

One is an increased ability to read the fine print. Gamers are better able to read smaller resolution without having to use vision aids like a magnifying glasses. The second benefit is an increased contrast sensitivity – the ability to see small differences in varying shades of gray (for the record, there are more than 50 shades). This kind of video games is especially useful in driving in stormy or low-light conditions or assisting in overcoming the consequences of cataracts. “The ability to discern slight differences in shades of gray, or contrast sensitivity, is the primary limiting factor in how well one sees,” said Bavelier, a professor of brain and cognitive sciences at the University of Rochester.

“Normally, improving contrast sensitivity means getting glasses or eye surgery—somehow changing the optics of the eye,” she said. “But we’ve found that action video games train the brain to process the existing visual information more efficiently, and the improvements last for months after game play stopped.”

Other visual benefits of video games are also present. For example, those who play are better able to track objects with their eyes and brain. An average person can typically keep track of three to four objects at a time, but the average video gamer can simultaneously track six to seven objects. This visual benefit of gaming is used every day in routine driving situations. Drivers must be able to see and track multiple images at once: the cars behind them, the cars in front, children playing, pedestrians, road signs, to name a few. A heightened tracking ability naturally leads to better and safer drivers, a vision benefit from which we all could benefit – especially seniors hoping to keep their drivers’ licenses longer.

There also appears that many of the visual benefits of video games seem to sustain long-term. Some studies indicate improvements in certain vision qualities up to five months after the video game playing had ended. This is especially promising news for those interested in developing games to treat vision problems in the future.

The way video games have the potential to improve our vision is by changing pathways in the brain. Since our eyes gather images which then processed by the occipital lobe of our brain, these neural pathways are streamlined to be more efficient by video games, the collected visual signals from our eyes are transmitted more efficiently and processed more rapidly.

Different Games Have Different Impacts

Image by BagoGames via Flickr

While the possible vision benefits of video games might make you want to quit school or your job and start playing in the name of vision improvement, it’s still important to remember that different games have many other consequences. More research is needed to fully understand how different games can change the brain and what is the best way to utilize these popular technologies for visual enhancement.

It is also important to remember that moderation is the key. The visual benefits studied are based on moderate gaming; video game binging and overindulging will not necessarily bring the same outcomes. The full impact of technology on our vision and brain development is still largely unknown and will require a continued commitment over the years of study to determine the complete picture.

The new findings, however, suggest that action video games used as vision training devices are a useful complement to current VT (Vision Training) techniques.

In 2007, Bavelier found that action video games substantially increase a player’s ability to accurately see objects in a cluttered space since it may teach the brain’s visual cortex to make better use of the information it receives. A study at the University of Oregon found that some video games improve the ability to focus and train the brain for children between the age of 4 – 6.

In the new study, her team tested the contrast sensitivity function of 22 students, then divided them into two groups: One group played the action video games “Unreal Tournament 2004” and “Call of Duty 2.” The other played “The Sims 2,” which is rich in visual, but does not require as much visual-motor coordination.

The volunteers each played 50 hours during the 9-week test. Then their vision was tested again.

Those who played the action games showed an average 43 percent improvement in their ability to discern close shades of gray — close to the difference Bavelier had previously observed between game players and non-game players — whereas The Sims 2 players showed no improvement.

When comparing people who played action video games routinely for more than six months to those who do not play them, the increase was 58 percent, Bavelier said.

As more studies are completed, and more knowledge is gathered about the impact of technology on the brain and eyes we may see an emergence of video games designed to help those with vision problems. Treatment that is fun and engaging is likely to be more popular than treatment that is forced. The key to creating these possibilities is finding a balance between the benefits and the fun side of video gaming.

Researchers, game developers, and others will need to work together to create new possibilities. Maybe someday soon we’ll see game developers and others working together to create new possibilities in vision enhancing video games available on the market.

So, parents, let this provide some peace of mind, your kids aren’t ruining their vision playing video games – in fact in my own practice I use video games as an integral part of my vision training regimen!

Just remember the 20-20-20 rule – every 20 minutes, take 20 seconds to look at least 20 feet away and maybe forgo that carrot stick and reach for your joystick.

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