How many times have we heard that video games rot your brain? If you are anything like me, with a strong interest in the industry and a fair amount of gaming experience under your belt, you have probably heard it a lot, mostly from concerned, well-meaning adults who watch a lot of CNN. Well, as more and more studies are published examining the effects of gaming on our brains, it is becoming easier and easier to put their minds at ease and reassure them that in fact, games do not rot your brain. Quite the contrary, actually. A wide variety of studies have found that action games can increase field of vision, visual information processing speed, and contrast sensitivity. Since most of the studies have dealt exclusively with action games though, the majority of these benefits are connected to reaction and stimulus—“fast perception.” However, a new study published in the Public Library of Science this past August examines how real-time strategy games may help improve the way we think.
Researchers looked at how games like the immensely popular Starcraft affect our cognitive flexibility. Cognitive flexibility is the mind’s ability to manage multiple processes at once, a sort of mental multitasking. It describes how well the mind can switch between different sources of information and stimulus, while keeping track of them all and making decisions based on them. For those unaware, this is more or less all you do in real-time strategy games.
For the study, the researchers used a forty hour regiment of Starcraft to train the brains of their participants (don’t worry, not forty hours all at once, but about one hour a day for forty days). Starcraft is based around building and managing an army as you battle against an opponent’s army. The study divided the participants into two groups, one which played the game managing only one base and another which had to manage two bases that were geographically distant and thus not on screen at the same time (there was also a control group that played The Sims, a life simulator that requires no real strategy). The latter group, playing on a larger map with two bases, would need to simultaneously keep track of progress at each base without being able to watch both at the same time, thus calling for greater cognitive flexibility.
Unsurprisingly to anyone who has played real-time strategy games, the study found that those individuals who played Starcraft scored significantly better on a variety of cognitive tests than those who played The Sims, and beyond that, found that those who played with two bases benefited even more with regards to cognitive flexibility. Forty hours of training spread out over a number of weeks was enough to create dramatic change in an individual’s ability to process and manage multiple sets and sources of information.
Now this is only the latest in a long list of studies that have found incredible benefits in video games. Another recent study, published in Nature earlier this month, found that video games could help improve cognitive abilities in older adults. The researchers designed their own game and trained older adults with it, then compared their cognitive abilities to untrained twenty year olds. They found that the trained elderly scored better in cognitive evaluation and that improvements in memory retention and multi-tasking lasted up to six months after training.
So as video games become more and more prevalent and continue to infiltrate mainstream culture in myriad little ways (I’m looking at you every Facebook game ever), we can at least rest assured that the games are not rotting our prefrontal cortex. In fact, they’re probably helping us keep our minds on edge, trying to hold at bay those slowly rolling clouds of mental aging. They’re also pretty fun. Which is nice, I think.