Developmental psychologist Daphne Maurer can't imagine herself ever enjoying video games, and she worries about the impact of the interactive violence, but that hasn't stopped her prescribing first-person shooters to patients with visual impairments. In this interview with the Sydney Morning Herald, Maurer discusses her research, and her thoughts on why first person shooters in particular help patients.
"I'm a reader," said Maurer. "My husband and I don't have children. So computer games wouldn't be a part of our lives. I've never played one. I can't imagine enjoying playing one."
But after a study showed that gamers with normal, functional eye sight showed improvement after playing shooters, she wondered if it might also help the visually impaired.
"I couldn't help but wonder: If they helped the normally sighted, why not people with impairments? Also, I saw studies where enriched environments for rats improved aspects of vision damaged after early deprivation. Well, what's an enriched visual environment for a human? It might be a computer game. I thought, "Click, why not give it a try?
"We tested their vision for five hours. Because there's a learning curve to gaming, we supervised their play for another 10 hours. Then they went home with a loaded console and played for 10 hours a week, though never more than two hours at a time. At the end of a month, we tested their vision again. They all showed some improvement on a number of tasks. Some were seeing better with their better eye or with their worse eye — or with both. Most improved in their ability to see direction of motion. They could see smaller details. They were able to see things that are in lower contrast. We were elated. This was a sign that the sensory brain can change in adults."
Bizarrely, other researchers tested for similar effects with Tetris, but found no improvement — there appears to be something about playing in the first person perspective that effects vision.
"You have to look at the screen, make a decision and push the joystick in the right direction," she said, referring to shooters specifically. "So you are not only sensing the world, you are acting on it. We know that combining vision and the motor system is most likely to be effective. Now, not all games do this. Other researchers have tried a game called "Tetris" with people with normal vision. It's not from the first-person perspective, and it is not fast-paced. They found it had no effect."
It's pretty incredible, and it's well worth heading to the original article for more information. Just be prepared for a slightly patronising line of questioning, and a little bit of ignorance. The important point it that the effects of video games on people with visual impairments is a real and positive thing. And that's awesome.