Not all types of video games change visual functions. The work reviewed above focuses exclusively on action
video games. Training studies in which performance of the experimental group (trained on an action video game) shows greater improvement than that of the control group (also trained on a video game), clearly show that action
video games have an edge when it comes to visual plasticity. What is it about certain games that contribute to changes in vision? Surely, the characteristics of the game itself are directly related to the types of processes that are modified by playing the game (e.g., ability to effectively ignore distractors, speed of processing, monitoring of the periphery, tracking multiple moving objects, etc.). To tease apart which facets of a video game contribute to the types of enhancements we have been discussing, Cohen and colleagues (2007)
surveyed the literature and looked at the effects of playing different video games on visual attention. They describe a gradient of efficiency across the games used – with games requiring precise but rapid visual analysis to guide accurate aiming movements appearing to be the most efficient. We review here the effects of playing different video games on visual learning. Games that have been studied so far fall broadly into five categories.
The first category concerns first-person or third person action games, like Unreal Tournament or Medal of Honor. These games place heavy demands on visual attentional systems as players are constantly monitoring the periphery for frequent, widely distributed, unpredictable events that require quick and accurate aiming responses. To do well, players need to track many fast moving objects while ignoring distractors. Perhaps most importantly, these games require motor actions that are spatially aligned with the detailed visual world of the game; for instance, the precise visuo-motor control needed when aiming at small moving targets. Importantly, the stakes of missing the target are high as the gamer’s character may die. Finally, these games have the advantages of having many entry levels ensuring that the gamers will face a challenging yet doable game experience. Not all games labeled action video games are equally efficient though. For example, individuals trained on an interactive version of America’s Army played over the internet improved less on the attentional skills measured than individuals trained on Unreal Tournament. Two factors are suspected to have led to decreased learning in that case. First, the interactive version of the game made it difficult to control the pace of the game as well as the skill level of the opponent. The inability to tailor the training paradigm to the level of the player probably contributed to the reduced effects. Second, significant portions of America’s Army are devoid of the fast-paced, visually-guided aiming actions believed to trigger visual learning (such as when the player needs to learn the code of conduct within the military).
The second category concerns sports or racing games. Anecdotal evidence from the study of children who play sports/racing games suggests these games may provide some visual enhancements (see also Trick et al., 2005
). However, 12 hours of training on the sports game Harry Potter: Quidditch World Cup, led to no clear enhancements of visual skill. Whether different sports/racing games that have faster motion (e.g., Need for Speed), more objects to keep track of (e.g., NBA 2k7), or greater emphasis on peripheral processing (e.g., FIFA 07) would lead to different results is an open question.
The third category concerns games that require fast visuo-motor control, like the game Tetris, but in which the visual analysis does not require target identification amongst distractors and the motor control part is not focused on visually-guided aiming. Past work indicates lesser improvement after playing Tetris than playing an action game. Tetris differs from action video games in several ways. First, there are only a limited number of objects for players to attend to at any one time. Second, the spatial location of these objects is highly predictable. Thus, although attentionally demanding, the player knows where and when to pay attention at all times. Third, only a limited number of shapes are used throughout the game allowing the learner to memorize spatial configurations and moves, rather than having to adapt to a constantly changing environment (Destefano & Gray, 2007
; Sims & Mayer, 2002). This last feature allows for the development of excellent expertise at the game itself, but what is learned is less likely to generalize to other environments. Yet, it is worth noting that Tetris has been reported to improve visual attention slightly more than slower games (see below) suggesting that the pace of the game is an important determinant of learning, with fast-paced games showing an edge when it comes to enhancing aspects of vision.
The fourth category is strategy games, like SimCity or Civilization, which a number of our studies have used as control games. These simulation and role-playing games are not fast-paced. The displays can be visually complex, and while there may be multiple things to keep track of in these games, it is never in a way that is taxing to the visual system, but rather in terms of cognitive tactics and planning. These games make it clear that being confronted with a complex visual environment is not enough to guarantee visual learning. It remains possible that if the games were sped up, strategy games could also show benefits on visual function.
Lastly, the fifth category consists of various computer puzzle and card games (e.g., Solitaire, Hearts, Minesweeper, Free Cell). In these games, players can choose how to allocate their attention. At no point are there unexpected events one needs to react to. Responses do not have to be particularly quick or spatially accurate, but rather rely on the development of good problem solving strategies often assisted by excellent use of mental imagery. As expected, these games trigger no changes in visual attention.
video games produce the greatest enhancements (both spatial and temporal) to the visual system. Given our present knowledge, we can list a number of video game features that seem desirable for promoting visual learning. The games should be fast-paced and unpredictable. The fast pace requires frequent interaction and allows for multiple opportunities for learning, as each action made is met with some form of behavioural reinforcement. The lack of predictability (events of unknown time of arrival and location) enforces distributed attention and leads to enough errors to signal that adjustments in behaviour are needed, promoting a high level of active engagement and learning. It goes without saying that the game needs to be motivating, as boredom will lead to non-compliance in a rehabilitation regimen. Thus, the difficulty of the game should be fully adaptable, as each player should be engaged at a level that is challenging yet not overwhelming. Indeed, task difficulty has been demonstrated to be a significant predictor of the generalization of learning (Ahissar & Hochstein, 2004
). The factors listed so far should not come as a surprise to scholars of the field of learning. The notion of entry level is solidly routed in the principle of incremental learning, nicely illustrated by the work of Knudsen and colleagues in the barn owl (Linkenhoker & Knudsen, 2002
). Adult barn owls are able to acquire new interaural time difference (ITD) maps, important for sound localization, after wearing prismatic spectacles that horizontally shift the visual field, but only when the prismatic shift is experienced in small increments. The use of large increments leads to systematic learning failures. Similarly, the importance of providing the system with an error message and of having motivating reward values associated with each action is well-documented in the reinforcement learning literature (Dayan, 2001
; Sutton & Barto, 1998
). Rather the new insights on learning brought about by video game training studies are two-fold. First is the possibility that the whole is more than the sum of its parts; video game training includes several factors that promote learning within a single training regimen. While each of the factors on its own may have only a weak effect, when combined together they can lead to widespread changes. Second, the video game work shows that significant perceptual enhancements can be brought about when the perceptual part of the training is tightly linked to perceptually guided actions such as aiming. Certainly, the fact that the outcome of these actions is associated with high reward values also helps. Another study in barn owls (Bergan et al., 2005
) nicely illustrates these points. Two groups of adult owls were fit with prismatic spectacles for 10 weeks. One group was provided with food, while the other group had to hunt live prey to feed themselves. The auditory maps of the group that hunted showed much greater adaptive shifts (by a factor of 5) in their auditory maps even though the experiences of the two groups differed for only short periods of time each day. These findings highlight the idea that the use of sensory information to guide reaching or aiming movements can dramatically increase the amount of plastic change induced.
Much remains to be done to precisely unpack how different types of experiences affect different perceptual and cognitive functions. A detailed analysis of the component processes engaged during action video game play would be extremely useful as a way to document factors that facilitate visual learning. Other dimensions such as the role of immersive, multi-sensory or multi-modal games on learning should also be explored. Although enriched environments are often thought to be beneficial for brain plasticity (which in turn leads to the prediction that richer, more immersive games would lead to better learning), most of the previous studies have been carried out in animal models and have compared deprived to normally-raised animals (Bergan et al., 2005
). Therefore, the extent to which this principle is applicable to the approach being considered with video games is unknown. As these types of questions are addressed, the potential efficacy and specificity of a video game training regimen will almost certainly increase.