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Action video games improve your ability to search through complex visual scenes

If you’re into action video games, you should be good at playing Where’s Waldo?

Researchers at the University of Toronto say that shooting or driving games improve your ability to search for a target hidden among other distractions in complex scenes. That’s pretty much the definition of Where’s Waldo?

“Recent studies in different labs, including here at the University of Toronto, have shown that playing first-person shooter video games can enhance other aspects of visual attention,” said psychology professor Ian Spence, speaking to Science Daily. “But no one has previously demonstrated that visual search is also improved.”

Searching efficiently and accurately is a good life skill.

“It’s necessary for baggage screening, reading X-rays or MRIs, interpreting satellite images, defeating camouflage, or even just locating a friend’s face in a crowd,” said Spence.

In one experiment, the researchers compared action video game fans and non-players on three visual search tasks. Those who played action games performed better. In the second experiment, 60 non-players played for 10 hours in one or two-hour sessions. Twenty played the shooting game Medal of Honor. Twenty more played the Need of Speed driving game. And 20 played a 3D puzzle game, Ballance. The shooter and driving game players showed improvement in the visual search tasks, but the Ballance players did not.

“But this difference could be a result of a preexisting superiority in experienced gamers compared to those who avoid them,” says Sijing Wu, a PhD candidate in Spence’s lab at the university and lead author of the study. “A training experiment was necessary to establish whether playing an action game could actually improve search skills.”

“We have shown that playing a driving-racing game can produce the same benefits as a shooter game,” says Wu. “This could be very important in situations where we wish to train visual search skills. Driving games are likely to be more acceptable than shooting games because of the lower levels of violence.”


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