Neuroscience and video games


Green, C. S., Bavelier, D. (2006) The Cognitive Neuroscience of Video Games. In: “Digital Media: Transformations in Human Communication” Messaris & Humphreys, Eds. Bern. Peter Lang Publishing

“One of the more enduring findings about visual learning is that training on one visual task rarely leads to improvement on anything other than the specific trained task (Fiorentini and Berardi 1980; Karni and Sagi 1991). For instance, if subjects are trained to discriminate between a straight vertical line and one tilted 1° off vertical, they will no doubt improve at that discrimination, but may not show any benefit when trying to discriminate a straight horizontal line and one tilted 1° off horizontal. There are cases where if subjects are trained in one part of the visual field, only this specific area shows a benefit, if subjects are trained with one eye, only that eye shows a benefit, etc.”

Ball, K., B. Beard, D. Roenker, R. Miller, and D. Griggs. 1988. Age and Visual Search: Expanding the Useful Field of View. J. Optical Society of America, A. 5 (10):2210-2219.


The useful field of view is defined as the visual area in which information can be acquired within one eye fixation. We studied visual search within this context and found a reduction in the size of the field as a function of age. This loss, however, was recovered partially with practice. Standard acuity and perimetric tests of visual field, although diagnostic of disease, underestimate the degree of difficulty experienced by visually healthy older adults in everyday activities requiring the use of peripheral vision. To aid in predicting such performance, a model incorporating the effects of distractors and secondary task demands was developed.

Bao, S., V.T. CHan, and M.M. Merzenich. 2001. Cortical remodelling induced by activity of ventral tegmental dopamine neurons. Nature 412 (6842):79-83.


Representations of sensory stimuli in the cerebral cortex can undergo progressive remodelling according to the behavioural importance of the stimuli. The cortex receives widespread projections from dopamine neurons in the ventral tegmental area (VTA), which are activated by new stimuli or unpredicted rewards, and are believed to provide a reinforcement signal for such learning-related cortical reorganization. In the primary auditory cortex (AI) dopamine release has been observed during auditory learning that remodels the sound-frequency representations. Furthermore, dopamine modulates long-term potentiation, a putative cellular mechanism underlying plasticity. Here we show that stimulating the VTA together with an auditory stimulus of a particular tone increases the cortical area and selectivity of the neural responses to that sound stimulus in AI. Conversely, the AI representations of nearby sound frequencies are selectively decreased. Strong, sharply tuned responses to the paired tones also emerge in a second cortical area, whereas the same stimuli evoke only poor or non-selective responses in this second cortical field in naive animals. In addition, we found that strong long-range coherence of neuronal discharge emerges between AI and this secondary auditory cortical area.

Clark, J.E., A.K. Lanphear, and C.C. Riddick. 1987. The effects of videogame playing on the response selection processing of elderly adults. Journal of Gerontology 42 (1):82-85.

Dorval, M., and M. Pepin. 1986. Effect of playing a video game on a measure of spatial visualization. Perceptual Motor Skills 62:159-162.

Drew, D., and J. Waters. 1986. Video games: Utilization of a novel strategy to improve perceptual motor skills and cognitive functioning in the non-institutionalized elderly. Cognitive Rehabilitation 4:26-31.

Dunbar, G., V. Lewis, and R. Hill. 2001. Children’s attentional skills and road behavior. Journal of Experimental Psychology: Applied 7 (3):227-234.

Dye, M.W.G., and D. Bavelier. 2004. Playing video games enhances visual attention in school children. Paper read at Fall Vision Meeting, at Rochester, NY.


Previous research has documented specific changes in visual attention as a result of playing action-based video games (Green and Bavelier, 2003). Typically, these games require players to make responses to selected stimuli, distribute their attention across the visual field, and orient to multiple moving targets. We sought to extend these findings by examining whether children who play these types of video games display changes in visual spatial attention relative to non-game playing children. A total of 114 children between the ages of 7 and 17 years were tested. Children were classified post-hoc as ‘game players’ if they reported playing first-person perspective action video games or ball-based sports video games in the 12 months prior to testing. The effect of age on the measures tested was first assessed by comparing 7-10, 11-13 and 14-17 years old. The impact of game playing was then assessed by comparing gamers and non gamers across these age ranges. Consistent with previous findings in the literature, game players demonstrated faster processing in a selective visual search task. More interestingly, game players exhibited a larger flanker compatibility effects (administered as part of the Attentional Network Test – Fan et al., 2002) and better performance on a children friendly version of the Useful Field of View (Ball et al., 1993), similarly to what Green and Bavelier (2003) have observed in adult gamers. These findings indicate enhanced visuo-spatial attention in young gamers compared to non-gamers. Furthermore, game players could apprehend more objects as measured by a ball tracking task (Pylyshyn and Storm, 1988), indicating an increase in the number of objects that can be attended. This confirmed our hypothesis that playing video games enhances different aspects of visual spatial attention in children as well as in adults. Thus, the normal developmental time course of visual spatial attention skills appears to be not only determined by maturational factors, but also quite plastic in the face of activities such as action or ball-sports gaming. This opens the possibility of using vdieo gaming as a tool to potentiate visual attention skills in patients, young or old, with visual deficits.

Fiorentini, A., and N. Berardi. 1980. Perceptual learning specific for orientation and spatial frequency. Nature 287: 43-44.

Gagnon, D. 1985. Videogame and spatial skills: an exploratory study. Educational Communication and Technology Journal 33:263-275.

Gopher, D. 1992. The skill of attentional control: acquisition and execution of attention strategies. In Attention and Performance XIV, edited by D. E. Meyer and S. Kornblum. Cambridge, Massachusetts: The MIT Press.

Gopher, D., M. Weil, and T. Bareket. 1994. Transfer of skill from a computer game trainer to flight. Human Factors 36 (3): 387-405.


An experimental study was conducted to test the transfer of skills from a complex computer game to the flight performance of cadets in the Israeli Air Force flight school. The context relevance of the game to flight was argued on the basis of a skill-oriented task analysis, using the framework provided by contemporary models of the human processing system. The influence of two embedded training strategies was compared, one focusing on the specific skills involved in performing the game, the other designed to improve the general ability of trainees to cope with the high processing and response demands of the flight task and teach better strategies of attention control. Efficient control and management of attention under high task load are argued to be skills that can improve with proper training and generalize to new situations.

Green, C.S., and D. Bavelier. 2003. Action video game modifies visual selective attention. Nature 423: 534-537.


Here, we demonstrate that action video game play enhances subjects’ ability in two tasks thought to indicate the number of items that can be apprehended. Using an enumeration task, in which participants have to determine the number of quickly flashed squares, accuracy measures showed a near ceiling performance for low numerosities and a sharp drop in performance once a critical number of squares was reached. Importantly, this critical number was higher by about two items in video game players (VGPs) than in non-video game players (NVGPs). A following control study indicated that this improvement was not due to an enhanced ability to instantly apprehend the numerosity of the display, a process known as subitizing, but rather due to an enhancement in the slower more serial process of counting. To confirm that video game play facilitates the processing of multiple objects at once, we compared VGPs and NVGPs on the multiple object tracking task (MOT), which requires the allocation of attention to several items over time. VGPs were able to successfully track approximately two more items than NVGPs. Furthermore, NVGPs trained on an action video game established the causal effect of game playing in the enhanced performance on the two tasks. Together, these studies confirm the view that playing action video games enhances the number of objects that can be apprehended and suggest that this enhancement is mediated by changes in visual short-term memory skills.

Greenfield, P.M. 1984. Mind and Media: The Effects of Television, Video Games, and Computers. Cambridge: Harvard University Press.


Video games, television, and computers are facts of life for today’s children. Anxious parents and teachers, concerned with maintaining the intellectual and social richness of childhood, need to understand their effects. Are we producing a generation of passive children who can’t read, who require constant visual and aural stimulation, and who prefer the company of technical instruments to friends and family? ?Greenfield believes that to answer this question we should not cling to old and elitist assumptions about the value of literacy. Instead she urges that we explore the results of the new research to discover how the various media can be used to promote social growth and thinking skills. She finds that each medium can make a contribution to development, that each has strengths and weaknesses, and that the ideal childhood environment includes a multimedia approach to learning. ?Current studies show us, for example, that television may indeed hinder reading ability under some circumstances. Yet it may also be used to enhance and motivate reading. Television can foster visual literacy, teaching children how to interpret close-ups, zooms, and cutting, and beyond this, how to pick up visual details, orient oneself in space, and anticipate formats and patterns of behavior. Video games teach spatial skills and inductive thinking, and classroom computers, contrary to the popular stereotype, encourage cooperative enterprise. ?Timely and optimistic, Mind and Media is filled with unexpected conclusions and practical suggestions for helping our children to thrive in a technological world.

Greenfield, P.M., P. DeWinstanley, H. Kilpatrick, and D. Kaye. 1994. Action video games and informal education: effects on strategies for dividing visual attention. Journal of Applied Developmental Psychology 15:105-123.

Griffith, J.L., P. Voloschin, G.D. Gibb, and J.R. Bailey. 1983. Differences in eye-hand motor coordination of video-game users and non-users. Perceptual and Motor Skills 57: 155-158.


The recent proliferation of electronic video games has caused an outcry from those who question the merits of the games, while others maintain the games improve eye-hand coordination. At present, no empirical data are available to indicate whether there are differences in eye-hand coordination between video game users and non-users. Comparing 31 video game users and 31 non-users showed users have significantly better eye-hand motor coordination on a pursuit rotor. However, no relationship was found between an individual’s eye-hand motor coordination and the amount of time spent weekly playing video games or the length of experience with video games.

Hasdai, A., A.S. Jessel, and P.L. Weiss. 1998. Use of a computer simulator for training children with disabilities in the operation of a powered wheelchair. American Journal of Occupational Therapy 52 (3): 215-220.

Jones, M.B., R.S. Kennedy, and A.C. Bittner Jr. 1981. A video game for performance testing. American Journal of Psychology 94 (1): 143-152.

Karni, A., and D. Sagi. 1991. Where practice makes perfect in texture discrimination: evidence for primary visual cortex plasticity. Proc Natl Acad Sci 88 (11): 4966- 70.


In terms of functional anatomy, where does learning occur when, for a basic visual discrimination task, performance improves with practice (perceptual learning)? We report remarkable long-term learning in a simple texture discrimination task where learning is specific for retinal input. This learning is (i) local (in a retinotopic sense), (ii) orientation specific but asymmetric (it is specific for background but not for target-element orientation), and (iii) strongly monocular (there is little interocular transfer of learning). Our results suggest that learning involves experience-dependent changes at a level of the visual system where monocularity and the retinotopic organization of the visual input are still retained and where different orientations are processed separately. These results can be interpreted in terms of local plasticity induced by retinal input in early visual processing in human adults, presumably at the level of orientation-gradient sensitive cells in primary visual cortex.

Kennedy, R.S., A.C. Bittner Jr, and M.B. Jones. 1981. Video game and conventional tracking. Perceptual and Motor Skills 53: 310.

Koepp, M.J., R.N. Gunn, A.D. Lawrence, V.J. Cunningham, A. Dagher, T. Jones, D.J. Brooks, C.J. Bench, and P.M. Grasby. 1998. Evidence for striatal dopamine release during a video game. Nature 393: 266-268.

Linkenhoker, B.A.., and E.I. Knudsen. 2002. Incremental training increases the plasticity of the auditory space map in adult barn owls. Nature 419 (6904): 293- 296.

Lintern, G., and R.S. Kennedy. 1984. Video game as a covariate for carrier landing research. Perceptual and Motor Skills 58:167-172.

Lowery, B.R., and F.G. Knirk. 1982. Micro-computer videogames and spatial visualization acquisition. Journal of Educational Technology Systems 11:155- 166.

McClurg, P.A., and C. Chaille. 1987. Computer games: Environments for developing spatial cognition. Journal of Educational Computing Research 3 (1): 95-111.

Metalis, S.A. 1985. Effects of massed versus distributed practice on acquisition of video game skill. Perceptual and Motor Skills 61: 457-458.


Etude de deux techniques d’apprentissage d’aptitudes à des jeux vidéo, sur le microordinateur Apple II avec 45 sujets des deux sexes; ces deux techniques se basent sur une pratique ou massé ou distribué dans le temps.

Orosy-Fildes, C., and R.W. Allan. 1989. Psychology of computer use: XII. Videogame play: Human reaction time to visual stimuli. Perceptual and Motor Skills 69:243-247.

Pylyshyn, Z.W., and R.W. Storm. 1988. Tracking multiple independent targets: Evidence for a parallel tracking mechanism. Spatial Vision 3 (3): 179-197.


This study tested whether multiple-object tracking-the ability to visually index objects on the basis of their spatiotemporal history-is scene based or image based. Initial experiments showed equivalent tracking accuracy for objects in 2-D and 3-D motion. Subsequent experiments manipulated the speeds of objects independent of the speed of the scene as a whole. Results showed that tracking accuracy was influenced by object speed but not by scene speed. This held true whether the scene underwent translation, zoom, rotation, or even combinations of all 3 motions. A final series of experiments interfered with observers’ ability to see a coherent scene by moving objects at different speeds from one another and by distorting the perception of 3-D space. These reductions in scene coherence led to reduced tracking accuracy, confirming that tracking is accomplished using a scene-based, or allocentric, frame of reference.

Rosser Jr., J.C., P.J. Lynch, L.A.. Haskamp, A. Yalif, D.A. Gentile, and L. Giammaria. January 2004. Are video game players better at laparoscopic surgical tasks? Paper read at Medicine Meets Virtual Reality Conference, at Newport Beach, CA.

Sims, V.K., and R.E. Mayer. 2002. Domain specificity of spatial expertise: The case of video game players. Applied Cognitive Psychology 16: 97-115.


Two experiments examined whether video game expertise transfers to performance on measures of spatial ability. In Experiment 1, skilled Tetris players outperformed non-Tetris players on mental rotation of shapes that were either identical to or very similar to Tetris shapes, but not on other tests of spatial ability. The pattern of performance on those mental rotation tasks revealed that skilled Tetris Players used the same mental rotation procedures as non-Tetris players, but when Tetris shapes were used, they executed them more quickly. In Experiment 2, non-Tetris players who received 12 hours of Tetris-playing experience did not differ from matched control students in pretest-to-posttest gains on tests of spatial ability. However, Tetris-experienced participants were more likely to use an alternative type of mental rotation for Tetris shapes than were Tetris-inexperienced participants. The results suggest that spatial expertise is highly domain-specific and does not transfer broadly to other domains.

Stanney, K.M., K.S. Hale, I. Nahmens, and R.S. Kennedy. 2003. What to expect from immersive virtual environment exposure: Influences of gender, body mass index, and past experience. Human Factors 45 (3): 504-520.

Subrahmanyam, K., and P.M. Greenfield. 1994. Effect of video game practice on spatial skills in girls and boys. Journal of Applied Developmental Psychology 15: 13-32.

Welford, A.T. 1977. Motor Performance. In Handbook of Aging, edited by J. E. Birren and K. W. Schaie. New York: Van Nostrand Reinhold.

Whitcomb, G.R. 1990. Computer games for the elderly. ACM SIGCAS Computers and Society 20 (3): 112-115.

Yuji, H. 1996. Computer games and information processing skills. Perceptual and Motor Skills 83: 643-647.