From the perspective of a conventional grown up, video games may be fun but they are a waste of time. They cause young men and women to sit on the couch for hours on end staring at a screen, completely immersed in another world devoid of all useful (i.e. productive) benefit. Players become addicted to these games while slovenly sliding into obesity, overall laziness, and unproductive lifestyles. They might even become aggressive and antisocial. Gasp!
However, if you have been following this blog, you are probably well aware by now that there are many examples where games are being used for good and healthy purposes. In general, for every negative in life, there is usually a positive, a silver lining so to speak. It may not be immediately obvious but if you dig around a bit and look at it from a different perspective, the benefits can usually be found.
Although video games are a form of self indulgence, they often provide unique and engaging environments that train players to think fast and resourcefully. With the right design and mechanics, they can facilitate learning and tap into diverse levels of cognitive thinking and problem-solving in ways that are not as easy to achieve with books and other forms of media. Research has recently come out investigating the positive potential of video games to better harness our cognitive capabilities to shape the brain in new and powerful ways.
Exploring New Ways to Harness Video Games
Last year, Nature published an article by two researchers, Daphne Bavelier of the University of Rochester and Richard Davidson of the University of Wisconsin-Madison, who were exploring new possibilities within game development to improve mental functioning, learning and to even strengthen emotional intelligence.
Their work was welcomed with open arms- Bavelier and Davidson even led a meeting at the White House attended by entertainment media experts and neuroscientists to discuss applications in interactive technology to better understand brain functioning and to enhance the overall well being of individuals, young and old alike.
Within the Nature article, they implored game designers and neuroscientists to develop new types of games that would improve overall psychological health. They specifically were keen to focus on these areas:
- Lowered anxiety
- Heightened attention
While game enthusiasts and proponents of gamification believe in the power of well designed applications to do extraordinary things (e.g. enhance enterprise efficiency and creative learning for kids; garner tangible support for charity causes; and even help rescue teams with natural disaster rescue efforts), it is exciting to see that the scientific research community is also embracing the idea of redefining society’s negative perceptions of games by advancing innovative design. In doing so, they are coming up with some interesting results on the ability of games to increase intelligence (within specific areas). Here are a few examples:
Neuro Racer Shows Cognitive Enhancement In Older Individuals
A research team led by Adam Gazzaley at the University of San Francisco designed a game called Neuro Racer and tested to see if it positively affected the attention, reaction, and cognitive functions of 40 subjects aged 60-85.
Players were told to drive a car along a road track. They were required to respond to specific sign posts by pressing a button while attempting to simultaneously filter out other signs. The game becomes more challenging as the players master levels.
The participants engaged in a month-long training period which required twelve hours of playing the game.
The experiment showed that older adult brains are more malleable and adaptive than previously thought- the subjects were able to perform as well as players in their twenties who had no previous exposure to Neuro Racer.
They also outperformed the control group on attention and working memory tasks. Normally, these areas of functioning decline with age. And even EEG scans showed more activity in the prefrontal cortex across the participant pool.
What’s exciting about these results is that Neuro Racer may be a prototype in a new generation of games that will be prescribed by doctors to help improve brain functioning in patients.
Real Time Strategy Games May Improve Cognitive Flexibility
Led by Dr. Brian Glass, researchers at the Queen Mary University of London and the University College of London studied the effects of real time strategy games on problem solving capabilities. The researchers were particularly interested in measuring dimensions of cognitive flexibility which they defined as:
- the ability to adapt and mentally “switch gears” to new tasks
- the ability to process many different and alternative ideas to solve problems.
In today’s economy, problem solvers are more valued than ever before, which makes research on cognitive flexibility particularly important.
Their experiment involved 72 subjects who were divided into three groups:
- Group 1 played an easy version of Star Craft
- Group 2 played a more complex version of Star Craft
- Group 3 played the Sims, which required little to no demand on memory or tactical thought processes.
All participants played for 40 hours throughout 6-8 weeks. The subjects who played Star Craft displayed afterwards much greater speed and mental agility compared to those who played the Sims. And these effects were enhanced for the group who played the harder version of Star Craft.
Researchers again assert that the brain is flexible, not fixed. And it can become sharper through games. Soon, we may be seeing games being prescribed for clinical treatments of ADHD or even brain injuries.
Specific Game Types Enhance Different Mental Skills
The idea of games enhancing mental prowess is somewhat vague. Cognition after all spans many types of capabilities.
An experiment led by Adam Chie-Ming Oei and Michael Donald Patterson at the Nanyang Technical University of Singapore studied different types of games and their positive impacts on different types of cognitive skills.
This study involved participants who were required to play an assigned game for an hour a day, five days a week for an entire month. There were three types of games:
- Life simulations (e.g. Sims)
- Object matching games (e.g. Bejeweled)
- Action games/finding hidden objects (e.g. Hidden Expedition)
After the experiment, the subjects showed improved performance on cognitive skills tasks as a result of these game exercises. The researchers were able to identify the skills that improved within each of the game categories they studied.
Visual search skills were sharpened through games that required matching and spatial memory capabilities. The ability to track multiple objects improved via action games.
The Importance of Game Design
Although we are now seeing more studies which illustrate better performance on certain types of cognitive tasks, the answer to the question of whether or not video games can make you smarter depends on how intelligence is defined. While games can certainly sharpen specific types of skills, what matters is whether or not these abilities are transferred to real life contexts in ways that matter. And this in turn depends on how well the game is designed to achieve this.
This goes back to our understanding that it’s not the game and its mechanics themselves that matter, it’s how it’s designed to function and the outcomes it is designed to achieve. We will see games and their designers working to better tap into our Core Drives and elicit generative functions in both cognitive and emotional intelligence. If you have any examples, please share them below!