Can Video Games improve your Attention?

Published on December 18, 2012

Several years ago after having served in the U.S. Army as a flight medic, I decided to take advantage of some veteran-friendly prices and obtain a private pilot’s license. The $5,000 US price tag, however, was a bit too much for my. Imagine my surprise when an army pilot told me that 10 of the required 40 hours of mandatory flight training could be completed on the PC-based flight simulator program Microsoft ESP. Microsoft’s claim regarding the use of it’s many simulator programs as a training aid was “it's not a substitute for formal ground and flight instruction, but it can help you sharpen the 90 percent of flying that's mental.”

Microsoft advertises the software as “a visual simulation software development platform that brings immersive games-based technology to training and learning…enabling developers to affordably create compelling simulation solutions for their customers.” While I did go through the trouble of purchasing the game, and even researching a realistic pilot’s seat with pedals for my home set-up, I never put any serious effort into the idea and was soon distracted by some other never-to-be-completed dream.

Later, during my first few years of medical school there were several research papers published around the idea of using video gaming as a teaching aid for medical students. Papers flooded scientific journals with titles such as “The impact of video games on training surgeons in the 21st century”, “Can video games be used to predict or improve laparoscopic skills”, and “Medical simulation hailed as next revolution in radiology training”.

One paper, titled “The Potential for Gaming Techniques in Radiology Education and Practice”, asserted “Within medical imaging, video gaming provides a novel means to enhance radiologist and technologist performance and visual perception by increasing attentional capacity...” We can come to understand the neurological concept of attention, as explained by recognized consciousness experts Christopher Koch, and Naotsugu Tsuchiya:

“Complex organisms, in particular those with brains, suffer from information overload. In primates, about one million fibers leave each eye and carry on the order of one megabyte per second of raw information. One way to deal with this deluge of data is to select a small fraction of it and to process this reduced input in real-time, while the non-selected portion of the input is processed at a reduced bandwidth. In this view, attention is a mechanism that selects information of current relevance to the organism while leaving the non-selected, and thus non-attended, data to suffer from benign neglect.”

The antithesis of that decade-long applause for video game is the paper published by Jessica Lyons, et al. at the University of Queensland, School of Psychology, St. Lucia, Brisbane, Queensland, Australia. The paper chronicles the researchers’ failed attempts to recreate the affirmative conclusion of earlier explorations into the ability of video games to increase attention.

The study divided a group of college undergraduate studentsvideo game into two groups, the Video Game Players (VGP) and Non-video Game Players (NVGP). I wondered—as you may—how they were able to find NVGPs in a group of teenagers. It turns out that the VGPs played a mean of 4-20 hours per week, while the NVGP—instead of being true non-players, engaged in video gaming, but less than once a week.

I am not sure if this recreates the circumstance of the truly non-video playing fifty-something year-old surgeon, introduced to a gaming training aid for the first time in her life, who after hours of gaming increases her performance. Still, I expect that the researchers surely thought about this and somehow worked it out.

First-year psychology students notwithstanding, these novice did succeed in recreating the results of at least two similar studies that also cast doubt on a causative relationship between video gaming and increased attention. Assuming we accept the conclusion of the students’ paper that gaming possibly does not increase attention, the next logical step is to ask the question: Are there any advantages to training with games?

As to my earlier flight training example, the option to use a PC-based training program to supplement logging in actual flying is definitely an advantage. Student pilots are often limited by the prohibitive costs of plane rental, instructor fees, weather and insurance. This often has the effect of necessitating that lessons be spread out over a much longer time span because of budgeting limitations. Consequently, the student’s knowledge is not as fresh during the live sessions which leads to the need for refresher teaching, more expensive live lessons, more refresher training, etc..

With regard to medical training, some researchers claim that the “psychologic gains intrinsic to video gaming offer the potential to reduce stress and improve job satisfaction by creating a fun and engaging means of spirited competition. In other words, if gaming does not increase my surgeon’s attention, but does allow her to hone her skills before my surgery, I am all for it.



1   accessed July 20, 2012


3 accessed July 20, 2012.


5 accessed July 20, 2012

6 Reiner B. Spiegel E. The Potential for Gaming Techniques in Radiology Education and Practice.  J American College of Radiology 2008. 5: 110-114


Category(s):Adult psychological development, Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD)

Written by:

Tony Brown

Tony Brown is a former U.S. Army (Reserve) Medical Officer, and currently completing his studies as an M.D./PhD/MBA candidate, with a research thesis titled, “Pharmacology and the Neurological Correlates of Consciousness.”