Study: Games narrow spatial skills gender gap

University of Toronto study finds lasting benefits from just 10 hours of action-oriented gameplay.

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Medal of Honor: Pacific Assault
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Researchers at the University of Toronto recently studied the effects of action gaming on spatial skills and discovered two things. First, there is a gap in spatial attention--the ability to quickly digest visual information from a wide field of view--between men and women. Second, that gap can be virtually eliminated by a relatively small amount of time spent gaming.

For a paper published in this month's journal Psychological Science, researchers Jing Feng, Ian Spence, and Jay Pratt took a group of 20 nongaming undergraduate students between the ages of 18 and 32 and tested their spatial attention skills before and after game "training." One group of students tallied 10 hours of play time with the reflex-testing Medal of Honor: Pacific Assault, and a control group spent the same amount of time with the more-relaxed pace of the 3D PC maze game Ballance.

EA's wartime shooter series was chosen because previous research found that first-person shooters could impact specific spatial skills. Atari's laid-back puzzler was chosen to provide a control group that would keep any results from being attributed to gaming in general.

"We wanted to find a game that didn't obviously involve rapid switches of attention across a wide area," Spence told GameSpot, "but we wanted it to have as many elements in common as the other game did."

In a separate experiment, the researchers found that gamers (those who play for more than four hours a week) from both genders performed better on spatial-attention tests than their nongaming counterparts and nearly even with one another. However, among the nongamers (those who hadn't played a game in the last three years), women performed worse than men on the same tests. They also found that science majors performed better than arts majors.

Although researchers have known for some time that there is a gender gap in higher-level spatial reasoning skills (of the sort required to properly rotate complex shapes in one's mind), Spence told GameSpot that he was unaware of studies that have shown such a disparity on lower-level skills such as spatial attention.

As for how the "training" experiment impacted the students' performance, there was little change among those who played Ballance, but the Medal of Honor players showed marked improvement from testing before and after playing the game. On average, female participants improved more than their male counterparts, significantly narrowing the gender gap. Perhaps more interesting is the fact that even five months down the road, the Medal of Honor players retained much of the enhanced spatial skills they had developed.

Although previous research in the field has also relied on first-person shooters such as Unreal Tournament, Spence believes a variety of genres and even 2D titles could also yield benefits.

"I think even driving games might exercise the same attentional skills," Spence said. "In things like Forza Motorsport or some of the other driving games, you've got to keep your eyes open and watch for events happening around you, things that appear suddenly and happen quickly."

Spence said he's planning to expand his research into gaming, first by studying driving games and their effect on elderly people, who he says "are known to have reduced spatial attentional skills."

"It's also known that people who do have reduced spatial attentional skills are more likely to be involved in motor vehicle accidents. They're also more likely to be involved in falls that injure themselves. We're going to start to explore the possibility that training them with video games might improve their attentional skills and also reduce their accident proneness."

Spence is also planning on doing some studies with the Wii. He says that the system's motion-sensing controller interface could provide even better results because it more thoroughly engages the motor system while requiring the same spatial reasoning skills. Despite the mainstream media's coverage of the Wii and other scientific research into gaming, Spence doesn't think that attention translates into ready funding for his research.

"I have a feeling there will be reluctance on the part of funders to fund these things because I think the reaction of most people is, 'That can't possibly be true. Playing video games can't possibly be good for you,' because of the negative you get from the violent and aggressive aspects of some games. ... I hope that we'll get funding to pursue this in more depth, but I'm not sure that we'll get it easily."

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