Gambling sharpens your Senses

16. March 2007

Balm for the eyes, balm for the soul. Computer games do not just create criminals. They also have a real medical purpose. That applies even for the frowned on ego-shooters.

A guy, who shot his way through an ego-shooter for several hours a day through months, does not know the difference between reality and fiction any more. One day he leaves the house, gets a gun and shoots his neighbour. Politicians and journalists get this engram out of the drawer, whenever and wherever someone runs amok. And on a regular basis, they owe evidence for this supposed causal chain. Those thousands of people, weapons up to their throat, gambling their way through catacombs for the entire afternoon – suppressed evidence.

Tetris is a bore. Your eyes agree.

Researchers at the Rochester University in New York took a closer scientific look at the action thriller Unreal Tournament. Results of the long term "shoot-'em up" under research circumstances were not psychopaths, but people with a better vision than before. The brain researcher Professor Daphne Bavelier and her team were looking on campus for diligent students not playing any computer games in their leisure time to participate in this experiment. "That alone was already difficult", said Bavelier on her search for computer ascetics in a high-tech generation. During initial tests, the students had to find a 'T' and tell the researcher, how it is aligned. This is an electronic acuity test telling about the same as the alphabetic board in an ophthalmological doctor's office. After this first examination, half of the students played 'Unreal Tournament' nearly every day for a month, the other half played 'Tetris', a game even known to computer sourpusses. Four weeks later, the acuity test was repeated. And how about it! Those students shooting their way through a virtual world had an average of twenty percent better vision than before. Those just sorting through falling stones did not have any improvement.

Fountain of youth for rusty synapses

"Action video games change the way our brain is processing visual information. In the end, it improves the performance on a good old alphabetic board", emphasizes Bavelier. The whole thing went even quite fast: "Already after 30 hours gaming, the spatial solution got verifiably better". The advantages in every day's life are obvious, especially in road traffic. When the scientists took a closer look, they were even able to show, that the visus improved not only in the sharp visual area, but also in the peripheral field of vision, those areas, which did not even "come into sight" during the action game. Exactly that observation made the scientists rather optimistic – it should be possible to develop therapeutic games for patients with, for example, Amblyopia. Those games should train the visual center like 'Unreal Tournament', just not quite as cruel perhaps. The team just equipped a 360-degrees virtual reality room to find out about more applications for therapeutic video games.

Software to wean off scaremongers

The psychologists Mark Balwin does it with a little less computer power. He is one of the co-owners of MindHabits, a spin-off of McGill University in Montreal/Canada. MindHabits produces video games for therapeutic applications. The flagship of the company: MindHabits Booster. It is created for people with problems in their self-esteem. The principle is rather simple: Bascially, the player is confronted with faces looking rather sullen. But on each board there is one face looking cheerful. This is the face, the player has to click. "If that is done often and fast enough, the player will be trained to start looking for positive feedback in real life as well", says Baldwin. The basis for this approach originates in the psychological theory that people with self-esteem problems usually take negative feedback disproportionately to heart, while self-confident people take every positive experience as a confirmation for themselves. If that sound a bit like brainwash – maybe. But it still is worth a shot!

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