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Shoot First, Ace Geometry Later

Video gaming may eliminate the gender gap in spatial skills

Playing an action-packed video game nearly wipes out sex differences in a basic spatial thinking task, research reveals. In a study of college students, men were better than women at rapidly switching their attention among stimuli displayed on a computer screen, a common test of spatial ability. But after both sexes played the role of a World War II soldier in a video game for 10 hours over several weeks, women caught up to men on the spatial-attention task, as well as on an object-rotation test of more advanced spatial ability. Women's gains persisted when the volunteers were retested an average of five months later.

The study's lead author, University of Toronto psychologist Ian Spence, speculates that the video game practice may have caused “massive overexercising” of the brain's attentional system or even switched on previously inactive genes that underlie spatial cognition. Either way, he says, the results hold tantalizing potential for designing action-intensive video games that appeal to girls and women, perhaps eventually boosting women's participation in fields such as mathematics and engineering, which demand good spatial ability. [For more about sex differences in spatial ability and scientific aptitude, see the article by Diane F. Halpern et al. on page 44.]

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