We know that faster-than-reality stimulation is bad for the attentional development of children under age 3. For every hour of TV children watch per day on average before age 3, their risk of developing ADHD increases by 10%. For high-action content like animated television shows, the risk is even higher. The explanation for this is that babies’ and young children’s brains are still adapting to how reality works, and when they are presented with faster-than-reality content, with cuts and scene changes, their brains adapt to that as reality and then become bored with actual reality, where things just exist continuously and there are no cuts or scene changes.
However, the evidence is also that action video games, which are the epitome of faster-than-reality content, are actually good for the attentional development of adults, and have major cognitive and practical benefits. Many of those benefits are because the game is faster than reality, because it prepares people to respond quickly and accurately to emergency situations where things do happen faster than normal, like avoiding getting into a car accident. See these studies:
Action Video Game Players Form More Detailed Representation of Objects by H. Sungur et al.
Playing Action Video Games Improves Visuomotor Control by L. Li et al.
Enumeration Versus Multiple Object Tracking: The Case of Action Video Game Players by C.S. Green et al.
Effect of Action Video Games on the Spatial Distribution of Visuospatial Attention by C.S. Green et al.
Action Video Game Modifies Visual Selective Attention by C.S. Green et al.
Action Video Game Play Facilitates the Development of Better Perceptual Templates by V.R. Bejjanki et al.
This TED talk by a leading researcher on the subject also discusses a lot of the studies that have been done.
So if faster-than-reality action games are definitely bad for the attentional development of children under 3, but very good for the attentional development of adults, there must be a cutoff point, where a child’s, young adult’s, or adult’s brain becomes sufficiently mature enough that action games go from being harmful, to being safe or even beneficial. This is a summary of the research I have found on this subject and the conclusions I have drawn.
Action Video Games Make Dyslexic Children Read Better by S. Franceschini
This study found that playing nine 80-minute sessions of an action video game (Rayman Raving Rabbids), improved dyslexic children’s attention and dramatically improved their reading ability, with more improvement than a year of the intensive reading therapy usually recommended for children with dyslexia. The children were 10 years old on average, with an age range between 8 years, 8 months and 11 years, 7 months.
Action Video Games as a Treatment of Amblyopia in Children by C. Gambacorta et al.
In this study, children with amblyopia, a vision impairment, played an action video game for 10 hours. Their vision improved as much as if they had had one of their eyes patched for 120 hours, which improves vision in the other eye. The children ranged from 7 to 13 years old.
The Development of Attention Skills in Action Video Game Players by M.W.G. Dye et al.
Differential Development of Visual Attention Skills in School-Age Children by M.W.G. Dye et al.
These studies, led by the same researcher, both looked at action video game players between 7 and 22 years old and found that, “The data suggest that action video game players of all ages have enhanced attentional skills that allow them to make faster correct responses to targets, and leaves additional processing resources that spill over to process distractors flanking the targets.” The action games I suspect/hope the younger children were playing were Bionicle (E) in the first study, and Ratchet & Clank (E10+) in the second study. Interestingly, only FPSs were included as action games and not racing games or platformers, which would seem to indicate that FPSs have a particularly beneficial effect on attention, since there was still a significant difference in attention abilities between the two groups.
Multiple-Object Tracking in Children: The “Catch the Spies” Task by L.M. Trick et al.
This study looked at participants between 6 and 19 years old and found that multiple object tracking abilities were significantly better for action game players than for non-action game players across the age range. This study included racing games, platformers, and most sports games as action games along with FPSs.
However, attentional development is not the only concern with action games. The evidence is that violent video games and computer games are addictive, while nonviolent ones are not addictive at all. Obviously addiction is a very serious concern as well, at least as much as the risk of developing ADHD, especially for children since exposure to addictive processes at a young age can permanently harm brain development and prime the child for addictions later in life. This is why I will be choosing only nonviolent action games for my children.
Based on all of this, I think I will be offering nonviolent action games to my children beginning when they’re around 7 years old. Now, I do imagine this varies with individual children. If your family is already predisposed to developing ADHD, or if either parent feels that they have attentional or self-regulation problems after hyperstimulation, then perhaps action games would not be suitable for your children at any age. But for most children, the evidence seems to be that by age 6 or 7, playing action games is not only safe for attentional development, but actively beneficial.