And now, the news that every parent dreads. Researchers reported yesterday that first-person-shooter video games -- the kind that require players to kill or maim enemies or monsters that pop out of nowhere -- sharply improve visual attention skills.
Experienced players of these games are 30 percent to 50 percent better than non-players at taking in everything that happens around them, according to the research, which was published in the journal Nature. They identify objects in their peripheral vision, perceiving numerous objects without having to count them, switch attention rapidly and track many items at once.
Nor are players simply faster at these tasks, said Dr. Daphne Bavelier, an associate professor of cognitive neuroscience at the University of Rochester, who led the study. First-person action games increase the brain's capacity to spread attention over a wide range of events. Other types of action games, including those that focus on strategy or role playing, do not produce the same effect.
While some researchers have suggested possible links between video games and other abilities, this study is thought to be the first to explore their effects on visual skills. Though the number of subjects was small, Bavelier said, the effects were too large to be a result of chance.
"We were really surprised," Bavelier said, adding that as little as 10 hours of play substantially increased visual skills among novice players. "You get better at a lot of things, not just the game," she said.
But Bavelier emphasized that the improved visual attention skills did not translate to reading, writing and mathematics. Nor is it clear that they lead to higher IQ scores, although visual attention and reaction time are important components of many standardized tests.
"Please, keep doing your homework," said Bavelier, the mother of 6-year-old twins and a 2-year old.
Dr. Jeremy Wolfe, the director of the Visual Attention Laboratory at Harvard Medical School, who was not involved in the study, said he was intrigued at the idea that "socially dubious games might improve something like general intelligence."
"It might give every 14-year-old something to tell his parents," Wolfe said. " `Hey, don't make me study. Give me another grenade.'"