Media Releases

Playing action videogames improves visual search

March 15, 2013

TORONTO, ON — Researchers at the Uni­ver­si­ty of Toron­to have shown that play­ing shoot­ing or dri­ving videogames, even for a rel­a­tive­ly short time, improves the abil­i­ty to search for a tar­get hid­den among irrel­e­vant dis­trac­tions in com­plex scenes.

“Recent stud­ies in dif­fer­ent labs, includ­ing here at the Uni­ver­si­ty of Toron­to, have shown that play­ing first-per­son shoot­er videogames can enhance oth­er aspects of visu­al atten­tion,” says psy­chol­o­gy pro­fes­sor Ian Spence. “But no one has pre­vi­ous­ly demon­strat­ed that visu­al search is also improved.”

Search­ing effi­cient­ly and accu­rate­ly is essen­tial for many tasks. “It’s nec­es­sary for bag­gage screen­ing, read­ing X‑rays or MRIs, inter­pret­ing satel­lite images, defeat­ing cam­ou­flage or even just locat­ing a friend’s face in a crowd,” says Spence.

In the first exper­i­ment, the researchers com­pared action videogame play­ers and non-play­ers on three visu­al search tasks and found that the expe­ri­enced play­ers were bet­ter.

“But this dif­fer­ence could be a result of a pre-exist­ing supe­ri­or­i­ty in expe­ri­enced gamers com­pared to those who avoid them, says Sijing Wu, a PhD can­di­date in Spence’s lab in U of T’s Depart­ment of Psy­chol­o­gy and lead author of the study. “A train­ing exper­i­ment was nec­es­sary to estab­lish whether play­ing an action game could actu­al­ly improve search skills.”

In the sec­ond exper­i­ment, 60 par­tic­i­pants — who had not pre­vi­ous­ly played videogames — played for a total of 10 hours in one to two hour ses­sions. Twen­ty par­tic­i­pants were ran­dom­ly assigned to play the first-per­son shoot­er game, Medal of Hon­or, 20 to a dri­ving-rac­ing game, Need for Speed and 20 to a three-dimen­sion­al puz­zle game, Bal­lance as a con­trol.

“After play­ing either the shoot­er or dri­ving game for only 10 hours, par­tic­i­pants were faster and more accu­rate on the three visu­al search tasks,” says Wu. “How­ev­er, the con­trol par­tic­i­pants — who played the puz­zle game — did not improve.”

“We have shown that play­ing a dri­ving-rac­ing game can pro­duce the same ben­e­fits as a shoot­er game,” says Wu. “This could be very impor­tant in sit­u­a­tions where we wish to train visu­al search skills. Dri­ving games are like­ly to be more accept­able than shoot­ing games because of the low­er lev­els of vio­lence.”

The study is avail­able online in advance of print pub­li­ca­tion in Atten­tion, Per­cep­tion, & Psy­chophysics at The research was sup­port­ed by fund­ing from the Nat­ur­al Sci­ences and Engi­neer­ing Research Coun­cil of Cana­da in the form of a Dis­cov­ery Grant to Spence.

For more infor­ma­tion, con­tact:

Sijing Wu
Depart­ment of Psy­chol­o­gy
Uni­ver­si­ty of Toron­to
Tel: 416–946-5813
* NOTE: Email pre­ferred for ini­tial con­tact

Ian Spence
Depart­ment of Psy­chol­o­gy
Uni­ver­si­ty of Toron­to
Tel: 416–978-7623
* NOTE: Email pre­ferred for ini­tial con­tact

Chris­tine Elias
Fac­ul­ty of Arts & Sci­ence, Com­mu­ni­ca­tions
Uni­ver­si­ty of Toron­to
Tel: 416-946‑5499