For some time now, it’s been one of those “well-known facts” that playing video games increases one’s hand-eye coordination... much to the consternation of parents and spouses trying to convince family members that their obsessive gaming has no redeeming value. Now, research conducted at the University of Rochester indicates that playing action video games also increases peoples’ ability to make right decisions faster. Ironically, an activity that involves sitting on the couch helps people to think on their feet.

The U Rochester researchers tested two groups of 18- to 25-year-olds, none of whom were regular gamers. One group played 50 hours of the fast-paced games Call of Duty 2 and Unreal Tournament, while the other group played the much slower The Sims 2. Afterwards, the subjects had to perform tests that required them to make quick decisions – these included observing information on a computer (sometimes only visual, sometimes only auditory), and having to answer a question regarding that information as quickly as possible.

The action gamers answered up to 25 percent faster, and just as accurately as their Sims-playing counterparts. "It's not the case that the action game players are trigger-happy and less accurate: They are just as accurate and also faster," said study author Daphne Bavelier. "Action game players make more correct decisions per unit time. If you are a surgeon or you are in the middle of a battlefield, that can make all the difference."

The reason for their enhanced abilities is something called probabilistic inference. When surveying a situation, the brain gathers bits of visual and auditory information until it has enough to make what it considers to be an accurate decision. Action gamers’ brains are trained to gather those bits of information more efficiently, accumulating enough to make a decision more quickly than slow- or non-gamers.

"Decisions are never black and white," added Bavelier. "The brain is always computing probabilities. As you drive, for instance, you may see a movement on your right, estimate whether you are on a collision course, and based on that probability make a binary decision: brake or don't brake."

For whatever it’s worth, spending 50 hours playing video games – unless you’re using a Wii or PlayStation Move – could still make you fat, so the criticisms from parents and spouses are likely to continue.

The research will be published in the journal Current Biology.