Why I won't tell your child to stop playing video games
I was there in the beginning, a three-year-old sat on my grandmother’s carpet, playing Pong on the Atari VCS. Even then, we were told not to sit too close to the television or we’d get square eyes. Since, I’ve run across the rooftops of renaissance Florence, saved the world from alien invasion and built my own theme park. Once a gamer, always a gamer.
Non-gamers scoff at this; they think it a waste of time but I think the same of people who watch television programmes about other people watching television. I like computer games that allow you to do things you couldn’t do in real life. A good game will challenge multiple faculties: strategy, reactions, concentration, the ability not to panic when surrounded by giant robotic dinosaurs.
To those who trivialise my hobby I say this: the video games industry is worth over $100 billion annually worldwide and is growing. In the UK, the video games industry is bigger in terms of revenue than both the music industry and the video industry. It’s not just teenage boys driving the industry either; 41% of video game players are female and 26% are over 50 years old.
The mobile phone gaming market is booming and we are now seeing virtual reality headsets seriously enter the market.
For the optometrist, each of these types of game experience brings their own ocular challenges:
- Dry eyes are very common when gaming because any task which requires intense concentration causes you to blink less – causing temporary stinging and blurring. To help, humidify your room with houseplants (this only works if you water them) and consciously stop and blink
- Focusing close for long periods is hard work on the eyeballs. Mobile phone games are generally held at about 20cm, which is much closer than an average book or newspaper. Not only do you have to flex the muscle around the lens in the eye to focus but you also have to draw the eyes together using the eye movement muscles. If you are struggling with this, your optometrist can help
- Glare from screens can make some people uncomfortable and there is some evidence that blue light from screens may interrupt sleep patterns. You can get a lens coating which partially filters blue light and some people find this more comfortable
- Virtual reality headsets come with lenses built in to allow for the close viewing distance. If you wear glasses, you’ll need to get the headset over them to see the action. To allow the headset to fit properly, the alternative is to wear contact lenses or have a pair of prescription lenses glazed into specially-designed inserts. Both the device lenses and insert lenses need to be set at precisely the correct horizontal distance apart to avoid eyestrain. The distance is known as your ‘pupillary distance’ and can be measured by your optometrist, although a fee may apply
Advice for parents
Parents often ask me to warn their child that they are playing video games too long and that they will damage their eyesight. I can’t agree, although I do tell them that everything fun needs to be in moderation and they need to spend time outdoors. There is no clear evidence that screen time damages your sight but studies have shown that children who spend more time outdoors are at a lower risk of developing myopia (short-sightedness).
Interestingly, action games can improve your vision.1 A study which examined contrast sensitivity (the ability to discern shades of grey) found that video gamers showed better contrast sensitivity than non-gamers.
That’s my excuse for a Sunday evening on the PS4. Now if you’ll excuse me, there’s a griffin terrorising a local village and they need my help.
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- Li, R., Polat, U., Makous, W., & Bavelier, D. (2009). Enhancing the contrast sensitivity function through action video game training. Nature Neuroscience, 12(5), 549–551. http://doi.org/10.1038/nn.2296 [Accessed 24th October 2017]
Ceri Smith-Jaynes is OT’s Multimedia Clinical Editor and is an optometrist in independent practice in Lancashire