Video games as a tool to train visual skills - Achtman, Green, Bavelier (2008) - Article


Even though people can improve their skills through training, specificity is still a problem. Learnt skills by training often do not transfer to other skills. Methods for overcoming this problem can be divided in two categories, namely direct pharmaceutical manipulations and training-induced learning. In this article, videogames are reviewed as a form of training-induced learning.

Playing videogames seems to have a lot of benefits. Results indicate that they, for example, improve hand-eye coordination, increase processing in the periphery and enhance divided attention abilities.

Which videogames?

Results indicate that especially action videogames have positive effects on cognitive functioning. These games require precise but fast visual analysis to guide accurate aiming movements. Different types of videogames are being categorized in five groups.

First-person or third person action games

These games are demanding for visual attentional systems. Players are constantly monitoring their periphery for frequent and widely distributed and unpredictable events that require quick and accurate aiming responses. Players needs to track what is important and ignore distracters. These games require motor actions that are spatially aligned with the detailed visual world of the game. The stakes of missing targets are high. The many different levels make sure that the gamers enter a level that is doable yet challenging.

Sports or racing games

These games may provide some visual enhancements, but not many.

Tetris and others

This type of game requires fast visuo-motor control, but the visual analysis does not require target identification amongst distractions. Also, the motor control part is not focused on visually-guided aiming. Even though there is improvement, it is far less than the improvement that is gained by playing action videogames.

Strategy games

These games are not fast-paced. The displays can be visually complex, but never in such a way that it puts pressure on the visual system. It’s more demanding in terms of cognitive tactics and planning. This type of game proves that only being confronted with a complex visual environment is not enough to establish visual learning.

Puzzle and card games

These games don’t have any unexpected events and players don’t have to respond rapidly. This type of game does not improve visual attention.

Requirements for the action videogame

Action videogames seem to cause the greatest improvements to the visual system. For the game to be effective, the following characteristics have been identified:

  • Fast-paced. This requires frequent interaction. It allows for multiple opportunities for learning, because every action is followed by behavioral reinforcement.

  • Unpredictable. This enforces attention distribution. Also it leads to enough errors to show that behavioral change is necessary. It stimulates a high level of active engagement.

  • Motivating. People don’t learn optimally when they are bored. Levels should be doable but motivating.

The mechanisms behind action videogames

Action videogames differ from standard trainings because of the type of motor responses required. The motor responses that are being used when playing this type of game are very refined and coordinated aiming motions.

A possible neurological explanation can be found in dopamine. Dopamine is a neurotransmitter that allows the modulation of information to be passed from one brain area to another. Researchers have found that a lot of dopamine is being released while playing action videogames, and more in the areas that they think are related to rewards and learning. This has led some to think that dopamine neurons may play a very important role in perceptual learning, and actually cause faster and generalized learning.

Real-life benefits of action videogame training

Even though most people might not benefit enormously from action videogame training, people that have a deficit in visual processing due to central nervous system deficiencies might benefit greatly. One big problem with the current trainings is that they are so specific and the learned skills are not transferable to other tasks and skills. But action videogames cause more generalizable skills and stimulate faster learning.

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