Video games may not be a waste of time after all. A new study finds that playing certain kinds of games actually helps improve quick decision-making skills that can be used in all aspects of life, from driving to keeping track of friends in a crowd.

Cognitive scientists from the University of Rochester report the findings of new research, which show video game players make faster decisions – not just "trigger happy" faster decisions, but accurate decisions.

The benefits are derived only from action video games, such as "shoot-em-up games," in which players navigate a maze and watch out for "bad guys." Strategy or role-playing games, on the other hand, don't have the same effect.

For the study, which appears in the journal Current Biology, the researcher tested dozens of 18- to 25-year-olds who were not ordinarily video game players.

They split the subjects into two groups: One group played 50 hours of the fast-paced action video games "Call of Duty 2" and "Unreal Tournament," while the other group played 50 hours of the slow-moving strategy game "The Sims 2."

After the training period, all the subjects were asked to complete several tasks designed by the researchers.

The subjects had to look at a screen of dots and identify the primary direction of the dots' motion. The task was made easier or more difficult by varying the number of dots. At the same time, the participants wore headphones and were asked to decide whether a sound they heard was in their right or left ear.

Video game players were able to make their judgments faster, without sacrificing accuracy, the researchers found.

The action game players were up to 25 per cent faster at coming to conclusions and answered just as many questions correctly as their strategy game playing peers.

"It's not the case that the action game players are trigger-happy and less accurate: They are just as accurate and also faster," study author Daphne Bavelier said in a news release.

"If you are a surgeon or you are in the middle of a battlefield, that can make all the difference."

The study authors believe that action video game players develop a heightened sensitivity to what is going on around them, which they can then translate into other tasks.

The authors note that people make decisions based on probabilities that they are constantly calculating and refining in their heads – a process called "probabilistic inference."

The brain continuously accumulates small pieces of visual or auditory information as a person surveys a scene, eventually gathering enough for the person to make what they perceive to be an accurate decision.

"Decisions are never black and white," said 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."

Action video game players' brains are more efficient collectors of visual and auditory data, and can learn to make a decision much faster than non-gamers, the researchers believe.