Could Video Games Increase Visual Attention?

Sarah Eckstein, BS
The University of Kansas
s394e811@ku.edu

Karthik Bonam, BS
The University of Kansas
kbonam@ku.edu

Crystal Chilcoat, BS
The University of Kansas
crystal.chilcoat@gmail.com

Hayley Barta, BS
The University of Kansas
hhume10@gmail.com

Evangelia G. Chrysikou, PhD
The University of Kansas
lilachrysikou@ku.edu

During the past decade, the video gaming industry has rapidly expanded across the world. In the U.S. alone, three out of four households reported owning at least one gaming console and 42% reported playing video games at least 3 hours per week (Rosser, Haskamp, Yalif, 2007).  In addition, people spent $22.41 billion on video games in the U.S. in 2014 (APA, 2015). With the gaming industry growing faster than the United States economy, gaming is undoubtedly an affluent part of the American culture.  Thus, it is imperative to understand the possible cognitive effects of gaming for different age groups.  Previous research points to the relationship between gaming frequency and elevated rates of aggression, depression, and Internet addiction, giving video games a bad reputation despite a recent meta-analysis reporting little evidence that video games contribute to aggression or other behavioral problems in children (Ferguson, 2015).  On the other hand, the use of gaming-based tools to teach students in schools suggests a strong belief in positive gaming effects.  A Copenhagen study found that intensive video gaming improved the encoding speed and short-term memory of players (Wilms, Petersen, Vangkilde, 2013).  Kuhn and Gallinat (2014) investigated the impact of video gaming on brain structures in adults and discovered a positive correlation between grey matter volume and the participants’ lifetime gaming experience. These encouraging results of a positive impact of gaming on cognitive performance provided the impetus for this exploratory study in which we examined the effects of gaming on cognitive functioning, specifically, enhanced visual attention.

We recruited undergraduate students to examine whether short-term and long-term gaming experience would impact participants’ visual attention skills (Bonam et al., 2016). Based on prior research, we anticipated that experience with visual tasks displayed on a computer screen could influence the way the brain processes visual information (Kühn & Gallinat, 2014; Wilms, Peterson & Vangkilde, 2013).  We hypothesized that video gaming would improve a person’s ability to process visual input and we further predicted that this enhanced ability would develop overtime from gaming regularly, thus, could not be attributed to a temporary ‘cognitive set’ during playing.

We tested two participant groups in two conditions: (a) those playing video games regularly and (b) those who did not. First, each group participated in three tasks (the Stroop task, the trail-making task, and a hidden object task, all presented on a computer) intended to assess their visual cognitive processing skills. While performing these tests, we monitored the participants’ eye movements using an electrooculogram (EOG) device to quantify their visual attention.  Following pre-testing, each group took part in a gaming intervention.  The game Bastion was used to control for prior gaming experience of our participants.  The game has a brightly colored art style, in which the silent protagonist battles cartoonish creatures and collects shards in hopes of restoring a shattered world.  As the protagonist travels through various levels, floating pieces and brightly colored creatures are continuously added.  We reasoned that the colorful art style and dynamic background combined with the lack of blood and gore made Bastion a gaming intervention that engaged visual attention processing.  Following the gaming intervention, we tested each participant on a different version of the same cognitive tasks (Stroop, the trail-making, and a hidden objects) and simultaneously monitored their eye movements.

Our research showed one particular difference between the two groups: during the Stroop test, gamers tended to process the color of the word presented without actually reading the word. The EOG data for the pre-gaming intervention showed that out of the 35 words that were presented on the monitor, the gamers registered reading, on average, 13 words.  In contrast, non-gamers registered reading, on average, 20 words.  This suggests that gamers were more efficient at filtering out irrelevant information than the non-gamers.  A possible explanation for this finding is the extensive time our gamer group reported playing video games, 28.5 hours on average/week, which might have enhanced their visual processing skills.  Interestingly, this difference between the groups seemed to diminish after the gaming intervention, with non-gamer response patterns resembling those of gamers.  This finding further supports the idea that gaming may help increase one’s ability to process visual stimuli.

Our study suggests the potential of video games as tools to improve visual attention. Improved visual attention, as a result of gaming, could have potential important implications for assessment of such disorders as Attention Deficit Disorder (ADD).  When individuals are tested for ADD, they are required to respond to visual stimuli displayed on a screen.  If these persons had been recently playing video games, or have been playing regularly, a boost of their visual attention could impact the reliability of the test results.  Conversely, it is possible that video games could be specially designed to improve cognitive skills in individuals with visual attention deficits (i.e., mood and anxiety disorders), especially if the improvements are applicable to improved performance in real life.  Our results contribute to a developing literature suggesting that gaming can have a positive impact on cognitive functioning and should be encouraged as a possible intervention for cognitive enhancement.

(Editors Note: The article is based on a Division 46 Poster of Excellence presented at the 2016 APA Convention, Denver, Co.  The authors received a Division 46 Presidential Citation for Outstanding Undergraduate Poster in Media Psychology and Technology.)

References

Bonam, K., Chiloat, C., Eckstein, S., Barta, H., & Chrysikou, E. G. (August, 2016). Investigating the effects of video games on visual attention. Poster presented at the American Psychological Association Annual Convention, Denver, CO.

Ferguson, J. C. (2015). Do Angry Birds make for angry children? A meta-analysis of video game influences on children’s’ and adolescents’ aggression, mental health, prosocial behavior, and academic performance. Perspectives on Psychological Sciences, 10, 646-666.  http://pps.sagepub.com/content/10/5/646.abstract

Kühn, S., & Gallinat, J. (2014). Amount of lifetime video gaming is positively associated with entorhinal, hippocampal and occipital volume. Molecular Psychiatry, 19, 842-847.

Rosser, J. C., Lynch, P. J. Haskamp, L., Gentile, D. A., & Yalif, A. (2007).  The impact of video games in surgical training.  Archives of Surgery, 142, 181-186.

Wilms, I. L., Petersen, A., & Vangkilde, S. (2013). Intensive video gaming improves encoding speed to visual short-term memory in young male adults. Acta Psychologica, 142, 108-118.

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