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Violent videogames may boost brain power, say researchers.

For 10 hours, Kathrin Herzhoff fired automatic weapons while storming beaches,
patrolling jungles and shooting down enemy aircraft.

It was all in the name of science. Before and after she trained on the video
game Medal of Honor: Pacific Assault, her brain waves were measured at a
University of Toronto lab.

“It was a steep learning curve, but I felt I improved a fair bit,” says
Herzhoff, a graduate student in psychology. She doesn’t usually play video
games, much less bloody first-person shooter games like this one. Yet this
action genre, often decried for its mind-numbing violence, is emerging as a
hot research topic in an unexpected area.

Scientists have found that virtual war games may boost brain power.

“A surprising aspect of our research shows that action games seem to be the most beneficial type of game when it comes to how well you see, pay attention, make decisions and switch tasks,” explains Daphne Bavelier, a professor of brain and
cognitive sciences at the University of Rochester.

After playing Medal of Honor, participants in the U. of T. study tended to be more focused, directing their attention to what was important, says researcher Jing Feng. The study, currently being reviewed for publication, is the first to
see if the brains of non-gamers show improved attention.

In 2007, Feng and her colleagues showed that action video-game play could close the gender gap in spatial cognition, skills that are important in mathematics
and engineering.

So all those hours on the couch annihilating enemies haven’t been a mindless
waste? Could all that practice help a gamer find the right career?

“Is he interested in going into robotic surgery or operating the Canadarm on the
space shuttle?” asks Lauren Sergio, a neuroscientist at York University.

She worked on a study published last fall that showed that gamers used their
brains more efficiently, tapping into the executive functions of the frontal
lobe as they performed increasingly difficult visual motor tasks.

Perhaps it could even help, not hurt, a kid in school.

“Not until we are able to put in the right content,” says Bavelier.

The mission for researchers now is to explore how the brain learns from shooter
games, then develop less bloody games that confer the same brain gains. “The
idea would be to get the benefits without the killing parts,” explains Bavelier. “You could create a game that would be good for teaching mathematics, slowing
cognitive decline or training surgeons — games with more positive aspects.”

In Canada, first-person shooter titles were the top-selling video-game genre
last January to November, says Matthew Tattle, who tracks video games for market researchers NPD Group. With titles usually rated for mature or teen audiences,
it commanded 15 per cent of the market, with sales of 2.3 million games.

While these games may have benefits, researchers recommend caution. Too much
violent screen play could be detrimental to a person’s physical and emotional

Bavelier, who studies brain plasticity, stumbled on to video games when a male research assistant working on an experiment came up with off-the-charts data.
The odd findings were not from faulty science but rather from the researcher’s
own brain. He was a hardcore action gamer. Bavelier was intrigued. She has now
done more than 20 video-game studies.

Her first, in 2003, found that action gamers could focus better on a task,
ignoring distractions.

She’s also found that playing video games helps visual resolution (the ability to see small details within clutter) and improves sensitivity to contrast (the
ability to distinguish shades of grey). Her latest research showed that the
games also sped up the brain’s processing of visual information.

So does that sharp vision and alertness make hardcore action gamers better drivers?

Only in theory. Most gamers, after all, are young males. “The kids who play are
also high on testosterone,” says the neuroscientist with a laugh.

As part of her studies, action gamers and non-gamers are recruited and tested in
the lab on boring screen tasks. The non-gamers then play 10 to 50 hours over
several days of either a fast-paced action game, such as Call of Duty 2, or a slow-moving strategy one, such as The Sims 2. Consistently, those who played the
action game were the ones who improved.

And the gains tended to last. Two years after a vision study, her team retested
participants, who had not played action games since the lab study. The
improvements remained. Other researchers, says Bavelier, found enduring
attention gains after six months when they retested their participants.

“Everything changes your brain. The issue is whether it sticks,” explains
Bavelier. “That’s what’s astonishing here. The changes lasted months to years.
That’s what we’re after now, understanding how that happens.”

She’s also investigating potential brain benefits from body-moving game devices,
such as Nintendo’s Wii.

At the University of Toronto, Ian Spence, director of the Engineering Psychology Lab, Feng and other researchers were particularly interested in whether playing video games could boost women’s spatial skills. Scientific literature shows a
definite gender disparity in spatial cognition, important in navigation,
geometry and other fields.

As part of the research, male and female non-gamers were tested for spatial
skills, then played either the maze game Balance or the shooter game Medal of Honor: Pacific Assault for 10 hours, then were retested. Only the action gamers significantly improved, with the women making larger gains, nearly closing the gender gap in scores. When tested five months later, the gains were still evident.

Feng and her colleagues also found that women learned spatial skills as fast as men.

Non-gamer Herzhoff, who trained on Medal of Honor, hasn’t noticed an enduring
spike in her spatial skills. She just remembers being jumpy after playing.

Like many women, she’s not attracted to the blood and gore. Even researcher
Feng, who enjoys video games, doesn’t play the shooter ones. “It would be nice to know the critical components in the game that give the benefits and rebuild
it in a way that appeals to girls,” she says.

Herzhoff, 24, muses about the possibilities. “Something brighter with friendlier characters. Maybe a frontier story plot. Maybe using animals instead of people,
like in children’s cartoons.”

Maybe rated E for Everyone.

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