Beneficial effects of video games: Do action video games sharpen spatial skills?

Assessing the beneficial effects of video games

Some parents worry about video games, and their worries aren’t unwarranted. Video games can be engrossing, so much so that kids neglect other activities, like school work, chores, exercise, and sleep. There is also experimental evidence that playing violent video games has an immediate, negative influence on our attitudes and behavior. But are the effects of video games all bad?

Studies suggest that prosocial video games make kids more inclined to help others in the real world (Gentile et al 2009). Other research indicates that kids who play action video games may be sharpening their visual attention skills and improving their capacity for visualizing three-dimensional objects. As I note elsewhere, it’s even possible that these skills can help dyslexic children read.

two girls playing video games intensely on a couch, while boy watches

Video games that hone visuospatial skills

Perhaps you remember this:

You’re playing a “third person” action video game, the kind where you can see your character on the screen. You must move your character around, avoid hazards, and shoot down attackers. But you are inexperienced. All sorts of visual distractions compete for your attention. Sometimes you lose track of your character. Where is he? And while you’ve got your eyes on your character it’s easy to miss incoming threats.

Nobody masters these feats the first time out. So, whatever else you might think about action video games, one thing seems clear. To play them well you need to develop your visual attention skills. And there are other improvements, too.

Researchers have tested experienced gamers–kids and young adults–on variety of cognitive tasks (e.g., Boot et al 2008; Green and Bavelier 2007; Dye et al 2009). Compared to non-gamers of the same age, the experienced gamers could:

  • track objects moving at faster speeds
  • track more objects at once
  • filter out irrelevant visual information
  • switch more quickly from one task to the next
  • better detect changes in briefly-flashing visual arrays
  • more accurately predict how 3-dimensional objects would appear when rotated

These differences might reflect self-selection. Maybe people who are more skilled at these tasks are more motivated to play video games.

But experimental studies suggest that playing action video games might help people become more skillful in at least one visual-spatial task. Inexperienced people trained with video games have improved their mental rotation abilities (e.g., Green and Bavelier 2007; Feng et al 2007; Boot et al 2008).

Moreover, a subsequent recent experiment suggests that game-related improvements are accompanied by distinctive changes in brain processing.

In this study, the trainees who showed the greatest improvement in spatial skills also displayed a pattern of increased amplitude in their visual event-related potentials, a pattern which may reflect more intense brain activity for visual attention and the suppression of distracting information (Wu et al 2012).


How useful are these abilities? To date, good “action video game skills” haven’t been linked with higher IQs or better scholastic performance.

But recent research suggests that action video games — by improving visual attention skills — may help dyslexic children improve their reading ability (Franceschini et al 2013; Bavelier et al 2013). And spatial rotation skills come in handy whenever we need to make objects “fit,” whether the context is molecular chemistry, mechanical engineering, or attempting to parallel park your car.

Moreover, it’s probably short-sighted to dismiss any video game skills as “non-academic.”

Once upon a time, the skills that make kids good readers would have had little relevance. Before the invention of books, the ability to memorize information was probably more important than the ability to decode writing.

Someday, researchers may develop more efficient technologies for transmitting information–technologies that will depend on the user’s visual-spatial skills. When that happens, the best action video gamers may have an advantage.

Meanwhile, researchers are exploring the use of video games as a tool to train visual skills in patients with disabilities (Achtman et al 2008). And it appears that action video games could help girls–who tend to be less adept at spatial rotation–improve their spatial rotation abilities. (Feng et al 2007).

So perhaps we owe action video games a bit of respect.

After all, we encourage kids to play games that improve their hand-eye coordination and aim. Maybe we should think of action video games in the same way–as activities that have the potential to sharpen our children’s perceptions and responses to the world.

More information

To learn more about the effects of action video games on visual attention and reading ability, see my article “Video games and attention”

For information about other, possible benefits of video game play, see my articles about  educational video games as well as my article about the beneficial effects of video games on prosocial behavior.

For a discussion of the negative effects of video games, see this article about video game violence.

References: The beneficial effects of video games

Achtman RL, Green CS, and Bavelier D. 2008. Video games as a tool to train visual skills. Restor Neurol Neurosci. 26(4-5):435-46.

Anderson CA, 2008 Longitudinal Effects of Violent Video Games on Aggression in Japan and the United States Pediatrics122(5): 1067-1072.

Bavelier D, Green CS, and Seidenberg MS. 2013. Cognitive development: gaming your way out of dyslexia? Curr Biol. 23(7):R282-3.

Boot WR, Kramer AF, Simons DJ, Fabiani M, and Gratton G. 2008. The effects of video game playing on attention, memory, and executive control. Acta Psychol (Amst). 129(3):387-98.

Dye MW, Green CS, Bavelier D. 2009. The development of attention skills in action video game players. Neuropsychologia. 47(8-9):1780-9.

Feng J, Spence I, and Pratt J. 2007. Playing an action video game reduces gender differences in spatial cognition. Psychol Sci. 18(10):850-5.

Franceschini S, Gori S, Ruffino M, Viola S, Molteni M, and Facoetti A. 2013. Action Video Games Make Dyslexic Children Read Better. Current Biology 23(6):462-6.

Gentile DA, Anderson CA, Yukawa S, Ihori N, et al. 2009. The effects of prosocial video games on prosocial behaviors: International evidence from correlational, longitudinal, and experimental studies. Pers Soc Psychol Bull. 35(6): 752-763.

Gentile D. 2009. Pathological video-game use among youth ages 8 to 18: a national study. Psychol Sci. 20(5):594-602.

Green CS and Bavelier D. 2007. Action-video-game experience alters the spatial resolution of vision. Psychol Sci. 18(1):88-94.

Wu S, Cheng CK, Feng J, D’Angelo L, Alain C, and Spence I. 2012. Playing a first-person shooter video game induces neuroplastic change. J Cogn Neurosci. 24(6):1286-93.

Written content of “The beneficial effects of video games” last modified 3/13

image of girls playing video games on couch by istock / SeventyFour