Parents tend to be wary of video games due to their violence-prone plot lines and media stories that they might dumb kids down. But a new study—one of the few that has looked at the physical effects of playing video games rather than the behavioral ones—indicates that the games might actually give kids a cognitive edge. The authors found “a robust positive association between cortical thickness and video gaming duration,” which could point toward “the biological basis of previously reported cognitive improvements due to video game play.”
The researchers recruited around 150 male and female 14-year-olds to take part in the study. On average, the group played about 12 hours of video games per week, although that figure varied between individuals. The team found that those teens who invested the most time in their games also had thicker cortical matter in two areas of their brain.
If these two areas are more well-developed, then it might mean a person does better at multi-tasking and making decisions. While these findings are still in the realm of correlation rather than causation, the authors point out that there is a strong likelihood that “gaming is sort of like weight lifting for the brain.
Well-designed video games are natural teachers. They provide immediate feedback on the player’s success by distributing reinforcements and punishments, assist in learning at different rates, and offer opportunities to practice to the point of mastery and then to automaticity. Video games also can adapt themselves to individual learners and train players in a way that helps them transfer knowledge or skills to the real world. Gamers repeat actions as they play, and repetition is one precondition for long-term potentiation—the strengthening of brain-cell connections (synapses) through repeated use that is thought to underlie memory storage and learning. To cite a mnemonic that Canadian psychologist Donald Hebb coined in 1940, “Neurons that fire together wire together.”
Several types of studies provide evidence that video games that include “pro-social” content—situations in which characters help each other in nonviolent ways—increase such conduct outside of game play, too. In one study, 161 college students were randomly assigned to play one of several violent games, neutral games, or pro-social games (in which helpful behavior was required). After playing, the students completed a task in which they could either help or hurt another student. Those who had played the violent games were more hurtful to other students, whereas those who had played the pro-social games were more helpful. Games may be beneficial for doctors, too. A study involving 33 laparoscopic surgeons—doctors who conduct minimally invasive surgery by using a video camera to project the surgical target area onto a screen as they work—linked video game play to improved surgical skill, as measured in a standardized advanced-skill training program. In fact, the surgeons’ amount of game time was a better predictor of advanced surgical skill in the training drills than their number of years in practice or number of real-life surgeries performed.
Arguably the most exciting field of research is exploring the potential of video games to tackle mental decline in old age.
While electronic “brain training” games have long had enormous popular appeal, there is no hard evidence playing them has any effect beyond improving your score
But at the University of California, San Francisco, Prof Adam Gazzaley and a team of video game designers have created a game with a difference: Neuroracer.Aimed at older players, it requires individuals to steer a car while at the same time performing other tasks.
After playing the game for 12 hours, Prof Gazzaley found pensioners had improved their performance so much they were beating 20-year-olds playing it for the first time.He also measured improvements in their working memory and attention span. Crucially, this showed that skills improved through playing the game were transferable into the real world.To test whether off-the-shelf games might bring similar benefits to elderly players, the BBC’s Horizon programme recruited a small group of older volunteers from a sheltered housing complex in Glasgow.
They learned to play a popular karting game, clocking up about 15 hours each over five weeks. Their working memory and attention spans were tested before and after. On average, both these scores increased by about 30%. Although this was only a small test, larger scientific studies will continue to explore the effects of playing video games.
playing games to change our mood doesn’t have to be problematic. The key is to play your favorite games with a purpose—with a positive goal, such as developing your creativity (in a game like Minecraft), learning to solve new problems (in a game like Portal), strengthening relationships with friends and family (with Words With Friends), getting better at bouncing back from failure (in Call of Duty), or improving your performance in high-pressure situations (with League of Legends).
Researchers have found that this kind of purposeful game play builds self-confidence and real-world problem-solving skills. More important, it has the opposite impact of escapism: Playing to get better at something (anything!) really does help you become less depressed, better connected, and more resilient in real life. That’s because every time you play, you think about the mental, emotional, and social resources you’re building up. You don’t see game play as artificially divorced from “real life.” Instead, you see play as an important way to help you practice real and meaningful skills.
You don’t have to change the games you play—you just need to focus on the way the games are making you better. When you do, you become more likely to believe that the strengths you build while playing are strengths that you can bring to your everyday challenges.
If you have an avid game player in your life, start a conversation with him or her about how games can make us better. Here are some powerful questions to ask any gamer in your life—or to ask yourself, if you frequently play games:
What makes this game hard? What skills or abilities do you need to be good at this game? What have you gotten better at since you started playing this game? Is there a part of your everyday life where you could apply the same skills or talents to solve a problem or achieve a goal?
And then, be sure to follow up with the single most powerful question you can ask a gamer, because connecting is always better than escaping:
Can I play with you?