Frag at Attention: How Gaming Affects your Visual Awareness

Video games have been increasing your brain's awareness skill this whole time. 

When we’re sitting in class, behind the wheel, or on our phones, our brain is constantly prioritizing the importance of the sights, smells, sounds, tastes and physical feelings of everything that surrounds us. I like to think the information surrounding us is separated into high priority info, low priority info, and no priority info. 

This prioritization happens in your amygdala, a part of your brain responsible for taking in incoming sensory information picked up by your body and its senses. With almost no conscious effort on your part, your amygdala will send signals to your brain telling it how to react (physically or emotionally) to what it detects. Your brain even has built in filters for these high priority items. These filters allow you to notice the high priority items in your environment with almost superhuman ability.

Ever notice how you can hear your name in a crowded room among 20 people murmuring their own conversations? When driving, your brain might sort priorities something like this:

  • Cars on road: High priority
  • Speed odometer: Medium priority
  • Open sign in cafe window: Low priority.

In fact you might not even notice there’s a diner there at all it’s so low. All of these things; the diner, the road, the cars, the odometer, the radio, the street signs, they’re all included in your visual spectrum, but it’s left up to your brain to process how important each one is. This priority order can be altered by things like your mental and physical state, and by new developments and unforeseen additions, like a car that pulls out of a hidden driveway.

Our mental capacity to respond to new distractions and objects, track multiple objects, manage multiple tasks, and be fully aware of our surroundings promotes success in professional, educational, and social environments. Video games not only allow for practicing these skills, they allow us to do so collaboratively, individually, and at difficulty levels suited to the user. But of all the genres, one arena seems to excel at this particular sort of brain development.

In 2010, scientists from the Dept. of Brain & Cognitive Sciences at the University of Rochester, and from the Dept. of Psychology at the University of Minnesota, released a focus article through WIREs Cognitive Science, titled Stretching the limits of visual attention: the case of action video games. They sought to determine if those who habitually played action video games outperformed those who didn’t regarding the gamer’s visual attention capabilities, and if so, to what extent.

Similar to how a driver must pay attention to multiple visual elements while on the road, a gamer must be able to do the same while playing. A player must monitor his character’s surroundings, including enemies and allies, hindrances and boons, dangers, and anything else lurking in the shadows.

Researchers tested those who habitually played action video games versus those who don’t in the Useful Field of View task and the Swimmer task, two tests used to determine how well an individual could search for and find a specific visual element amongst a spectrum of several elements. Think of it as surveying a dance floor of people while trying to find one or two people doing a specific move. In both tasks, action video game players were able to find their targets faster even during tests that featured a higher number of distractors.

Action video gamers appear highly adept at multiple object tracking. Some of the best CS:GO, LoL, and CoD pros demonstrate incredible skill in their ability to tend to multiple objects and interactions at a time while still maintaining a high awareness for other visual elements. Tests revealed that once again, those who habitually play action video games performed better at multiple object tracking tasks, scoring higher in the amount of objects tracked, and in effectiveness of tracking.

The researchers went on to discuss the effectiveness of higher amounts of attentional resources. The perceptual load theory of attention, explained in this University College Dept. of Psychology paper, suggests that those with a higher amount of additional resources have more available to respond to stimuli. That is to say they have higher resources available in addition to what the subject is already focused on. This means you can divert more of your attention to other objects in your visual spectrum without sacrificing attention to your primary objective.

This research is interesting in that it suggests gamers of all genres tested with higher attentional resources than individuals who do not game, with gamers in the action genre scoring the highest marks. If you think of humans as computers, it’s essentially saying that gamers, in general, have better processors. This begs the question: Do these games train their users to develop these skills, or are people who are naturally more skilled at this sort of object tracking drawn to this genre of game? While the answer may very well be ‘both’, we’d love to see future research shed light on subjects like these and more.

Could your gaming habits help you discover skills and cognitive abilities that could help you in the real world? With a bit of self reflection and awareness, we’re betting they just might. That’s something we’re interested in here at Dvsion: understanding how games influence us at a deep level and making the most of it in the real world, in our real lives. With the effect of enhanced visual attention from habitual gaming aiding you, you’re more apt to succeed in the workplace and classroom settings, and could potentially be more equipped to handle specialized jobs that necessitate higher levels of awareness and responsiveness.

This is important to take away: don’t think of gaming as the one and only augment to your attention and awareness, and with that, we leave you with an excerpt straight from the conclusion of the article:

Video games should not be thought of as an elixir for all aspects of mental function, but their effects could be useful not only in themselves,...but also as a research tool for identifying the extent to which neural mechanisms governing different cognitive skills are malleable.

Hubert-Wallander, Green, and Bavalier

University of Rochester, University of Minnesota


Scott has been writing about video games for over four years, specializing in news and features regarding esports for the past two and a half. He's written for organizations such as Ninjas in Pyjamas, PGL, E-Frag, and Splyce. He joined Dvsion to help create a service and community that rewards fair play and helps the players grow in more ways than just their in-game play.

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