Gamers could inadvertently be improving their visual processing, according to optometrist and visual therapist Dr Miki Zilnicki, but environmental changes are also making our vision worse.
In an interview with Reviews.org, Dr Zilnicki discussed technologies she uses in vision training and neuro-rehabilitation. One in particular - The Neurotracker - draws striking parallels to first-person shooter games. Using a 3D screen, patients track, and hit moving targets as a way to improve response times and awareness.
“These are the things we do in the clinic and [gamers] are just doing it every day.” said Dr Zilnicki, “if we were to get elite gamers on the Neurotracker device, they would probably be in the upper echelon with their abilities.”
Like the Neurotracker, gaming can’t be used to improve visual acuity, but instead to train visual processing skills. Visual processing refers to the brain’s ability to interpret, and use visual information. Deficits can look like visual-spatial issues where people have trouble understanding where objects sit in the space, visual sequencing issues where it may be difficult to see letters or words in the correct order, and letter and symbol reversal issues, to name a few.
While training visual processing skills won’t fix any physical ocular issues, it can help improve the brain’s abilities leading to better visual perception.
“I think that the biggest misconception about vision is [that] it is what it is. You can always improve your visual skills because it is a learned process.” Dr Zilnicki told Reviews.org. “You really can improve a lot of things with your vision, and those gamers definitely have top-notch skills.”
Although gaming can improve visual cognizance, too much screen time may deteriorate visual acuity. The optometric community have called myopia (nearsightedness) a global pandemic, with estimates that 50% of the population will need a prescription for the condition by 2050. Australians saw a 3% increase in reported nearsightedness symptoms between 2020 and 2022, with 40% of Australians who have had an eye exam now experiencing myopia.
“There is going to be a huge increase in myopia because of all of this device use, and that is really what the biggest concern is. We are literally living in evolution, our visual systems are changing because of our environment.”
“Everyone thinks that if you’re nearsighted you just need a pair of glasses, and to a certain extent that is true, but there are ocular health implications being near sighted." Dr Zilnicki warns, "The higher your prescription is, your eyeball actually elongates, so it actually stretches your retina so you’re at a higher risk of developing retinal holes, retinal tears, retinal detachments. It has an increased instance of cataract formation, and in very severe forms, blindness.”
Regardless as to whether you’re looking at screens to game, or to work, the general advice is to give your eyes a rest every 20 minutes. Look at something six metres away for around 20 seconds, minimise screen reflections, and make sure the room is well lit. Optometry Australia says that 90% of ocular issues are treatable, or preventable with early detection, and advises to see a professional about eye strain and visual issues as soon as possible.