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  • Luisa Scherer

How Games and Video Games Develop Spatial Vision

Updated: Jun 19, 2023

Spatial vision is a well-known term for those who develop games and apps, or even amongst education professionals, but it is still rarely discussed outside these fields.

Spatial vision starts to develop when we are babies. Elizabeth Spelke is a psychologist and researcher of Harvard's Laboratory for Developmental Studies, and she has studied children’s cognitive development since 1980.

In an article published in 2020, she stated that babies can distinguish between changes in angles and shapes in drawings. Through gestures, the little ones can also learn to develop a sense of geometry.

We spoke to Vânia Cristina Pires Nogueira Valente* about how spatial vision manifests and is improved through games.

*Vânia Cristina Pires Nogueira Valente is vice-coordinator of the Media and Technology Post-Graduate Program – Professional Masters – from FAAC/Unesp and a lecturer in Graphic Representation. She is also a professor at the Faculty of Architecture, Arts and Communication from Universidade Estadual Paulista Júlio de Mesquita Filho, and author of the book Desenvolvimento da Visão Espacial por Games Digitais, (freely translated to “Spatial vision development through digital games”).

What is spatial vision?

According to Vânia, spatial vision is a set of abilities. It’s a skill which isn’t innate – in other words, no one is born with this skill, it’s instead developed throughout life.

“Spatial vision isn’t a gift, it’s something you develop just like you learn how to write or ride a bike. Spatial vision can be improved and developed and increasingly sharpened. This skill involves imagining objects and three-dimensional things and conceiving a kind of construction in your head.”

“For example, Waze is a two-dimensional map, but you can imagine the road and the corner where you will turn. The process of converting from 2D to 3D means you have a well-developed spatial vision skill. Or, when you imagine dice and see them turning in your mind: that’s spatial vision working.”

How can we develop spatial vision?

The professor states you need to develop cognitive skills before developing spatial vision. “It’s necessary to have quick thinking, a notion of distance, response speed and reflex. That is why in contact sports, in which you need to reach a goal and calculate the time to get rid of the opponent, such as football, there are several skills that are developed, and all of this helps to develop spatial vision.

“Many of these skills, such as quick thinking and reflex, are also developed by games such as shooter games, in which the players have to get rid of their opponents and, in order to do that, they need to think quickly.

Vânia mentions the game Overwatch in her book as an example of action games that also stimulate the skills necessary for spatial vision development. Games in which there’s speed usually require response speed. Many of them also contain several elements on screen that players need to pay attention to. All these elements develop skills that lead to the improvement of spatial vision, according to Vânia.

“I like some more specific games, like Minecraft, in which you can look at objects from different points of view. You can navigate around the space, the game’s environment, and you see the same object from different positions: from the top, head-on, and from the sides. That allows the brain to put together 3D objects based on these views. I mention Minecraft to my students to exercise their spatial vision skill,” she explains.

Developed spatial vision may be necessary for many different jobs:

The benefits of spatial vision development provide several necessary skills for many professions, according to Vânia.

“In my case, since I teach engineering, design, and technical drawing, students need to draw objects, projections, blueprints, aerial and front-view drawings and therefore need their spatial vision skill very well-developed.”

“I used to notice in my lessons how easier it was for students who played games or practiced action and contact sports such as football than it was for the others. Professionally it is very important to have a well-developed spatial vision, and so is for our personal lives.”

Vânia remarks that spatial vision is also extremely important for driving, since, in order to drive the vehicle, the driver’s attention must be on several places and they have to calculate the space, speed, etc. 

Written by Débora Nazário

Translated by Mariana Gruber

Editor’s Note

Now that we’ve seen that many electronic games help to develop spatial vision, a question may arise: what about kids and violent games? This subject has been openly discussed since video games gained traction as a source of entertainment, at least 20 years ago.

Of course, the later violent games are introduced to kids, the better. But playing this type of computer game or video game isn’t necessarily making kids violent. Behavioral change in kids never stems from one thing only, albeit that doesn’t exclude the possibility of violent games being a trigger for aggressive behavior. That depends on how much time this kid plays every day, if there’s open dialogue between them and the parents, if their older siblings also play these games and even the kid’s personality.

Specialists’ Opinion

Even specialists disagree when it comes to this subject. There are those who defend that electronic games do influence kids’ behaviors and those who defend that it isn’t something defined by one factor only and that there is a series of events, not an isolated one, which may lead to this type of behavior.

To this day, when it comes to this theme, it is hard to find an article which has reached a verdict. Most likely because there are many issues involved: the parents’ participation in the kids’ lives, the relationship between the kids and their caretakers, social-economical, gender, and personality issues, and so on and so forth.

One common ground between them is in relation to screen time according to the kid’s age. Several Pediatric Associations and Councils around the world recommend no screen time at all for kids under the age of 2. From this age forward, the recommendation starts with 30 minutes and increases along the age range.

Another common ground is in regards to kids who isolate themselves in electronic games, which is a warning sign. Kids who usually play on the computer and video games but take part in other activities and hobbies have a different relationship with electronics than kids who isolate themselves in the computer and in video games. If your kids are isolating themselves, you can: give them more attention, offer another type of activity, take them out, ask them about their friends, etc. Also, help them with whatever they need.

Outro consenso é em relação às crianças que se isolam nos jogos eletrônicos, que é um sinal de alerta. Crianças que costumam jogar no computador e videogame, mas que fazem outras atividades e hobbies, têm uma relação diferente com os eletrônicos das crianças que se isolam no computador e videogame. Se seus filhos se isolam, vale dar mais atenção a eles, oferecer outro tipo de atividade, fazer mais passeios, perguntar sobre seus amigos e etc, e ajudá-los no que for necessário.

Harvard Analysis

A 2010 analysis from Harvard Health Publishing, from Harvard University, gathers articles from specialists from both sides of the coin. Some articles, more recent at the time, argue that “much of the research on violent video game use relies on measures to assess aggression that don't correlate with real-world violence”. Even more important than that, “some studies are observational and don't prove cause and effect.”

According to this document, “Although adults tend to view video games as isolating and antisocial, other studies found that most young respondents described the games as fun, exciting, something to counter boredom, and something to do with friends. For many youths, violent content is not the main draw.

“Boys in particular are motivated to play video games in order to compete and win. Seen in this context, use of violent video games may be similar to the type of rough-housing play that boys engage in as part of normal development. Video games offer one more outlet for the competition for status or to establish a pecking order.”

What may be done at home

Our point is: it’s not the end of the world if your kids play violent electronic games. If that’s the case and you do have some concerns, do the basic:

  1. Show interest in what your kids are interested in.

  2. Try to understand why they like it so much.

  3. Play it with them, talk about it.

  4. Do some research on the game and search for more information on it.

  5. Beware of behavior changes and ask the kids what they think, instead of being sure you already know the answer.

  6. Encourage them to play sports.

  7. Remember it is important for kids to have limited screen time! If you haven’t set a limit at home yet, see whether that makes sense for you and your family. We’ve talked about this in this article.

  8. Check whether your kids are playing games appropriate for their age range.*

* For example: 7-year-old kids playing a teen-rated video game is undoubtedly inappropriate. If this happens, research similar and fun alternatives to offer your kids, in exchange for the first option. For instance, if they’re playing a shooting game, find a paintball alternative, in which the mechanics are the same, but there isn’t as much violence.

On the other hand, it is very common for teenagers between the ages of 13 and 14 to play mature-rated video games. Is it ideal? No, but forbidding them from playing only makes them feel outraged, in this case. To evaluate this case, take into account your kids’ particularities such as maturity and sensitivity to some themes and talk to them about the game’s content (guns, violence or any other theme you find inappropriate for them. At their age, an open dialogue is better than taking the game away from them).

Truth and Tales’ stance: we don’t recommend that kids under the age of 4 consume any screen content. For more details, we recommend reading this post: “Kids and exposure to screens: how far is it okay?”

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