Brain Games

The Importance of Playing Video Games

There’s nothing like sitting down with one of your favorite games at the end of a long day. There’s so much to get done in life, however, that it seems like taking time out for a video game just isn’t possible. What if I were to tell you that spending an hour a day with your favorite game could be just what your brain needs?

Studies show that video games actually have numerous brain benefits. And these aren’t those games crafted specifically to train your brain, either! Studies have shown that many popular titles have surprising potential when it comes to improving cognitive function. Here are just a few of the ways playing video games can make your brain function better.

Improved Perception, Decision Making Skills, and Higher Cognitive Functions

If action and strategy games are among your favorites, then you’re in luck. Games such as Grand Theft Auto V and Starcraft have been proven to benefit cognitive function. Officially, in a lab. Playing fast-paced action and strategy games can help to increase attention span, vision, and a person’s ability to make choices.  A study published in the journal Policy Insights from the Behavioral and Brain Sciences tested the effects of both brain games and popular titles. The results show that action games are just as good, if not better, than standard brain games.

Researchers C. Shawn Green (University of Wisconsin, Madison) and Aaron Seitz (University of California, Riverside) cover the current literature on gaming and the brain in their report The Impacts of Video Games on Cognition (and How the Government Can Guide the Industry). In it, they state that

“Playing some types of video games, particularly ‘action’ video games, results in widespread enhancements in cognitive function.”

The researchers conclude that playing certain games for at least an hour a day shows specific improvements to cognitive functioning. These include boosts to perceptual skills; visual attentive skills; and certain higher cognitive functions, such as the ability to multitask.

Improved Memory Recall and Attention Span

Adam Gazzaley from the University of California has worked with a team of game designers to make a game called Neuroracer. This game was created for older generations and is aimed at improving memory recall and other cognitive signs of aging. The combination of problem solving and spatial relations can help to train the brain’s hippocampus, resulting in improved memory. Older players could beat opponents in their 20 after just 12 hours of practice. The tests showed improved working memory and attention span, but the benefits only last if the game is played daily. Just as your muscles will atrophy if you don’t hit the gym, your brain will turn to pudding if you don’t get in your video game time!

BBC’s Horizon program decided to take Gazzaley’s experiment one step further by testing it out with over-the-counter games. They recruited a small group of older volunteers from the Glasgow area. Their working memory and attention span was tested before and after 15 hours of gameplay, spread out over five weeks. Their tests showed an average 30% increase among volunteers! To put that in perspective, people lose about 12% of their memory recall abilities between the ages of 45 and 70.

Management of Depression, Anxiety, and Pain

Jane McGonigal is a video game designer who actively speaks out about the potential benefits of gaming. McGonigal suffered a brain injury, and she managed to speed up her recovery by structuring daily tasks around a gaming mentality. By assigning point values to actions, and crediting herself as leveling up when she met acheivements, McGonigal was able to better manage depression during her recovery.

As McGonigal is quick to point out in her speeches, playing video games activates the brain’s hippocampus and rewards centers. These two areas are inactive in a person suffering from depression. It makes sense that stimulating these areas could be a beneficial treatment.

Researchers in New Zealand have also spotted this link. In 2012, a study was conducted in which 168 teenagers who struggled with depression were randomly assigned two different methods of treatment. One half of the teens received the standard form of one-on-one counseling with a therapist. The other half played a fantasy game called SPARX. The game was designed specifically to treat depression in teens. In it, players have to restore order to the world by squashing “gloomy negative automatic thoughts.” Each level also taught the player about depression, emotional coping strategies, and relaxation techniques. The results showed that 44% of the SPARX players recovered completely, while only 26% of the teens who underwent therapy had complete recovery.

In 2010 research was presented at the American Pain Society’s annual scientific meeting which showed that video games can help with anxiety and pain management as well. Specifically, games with an emphasis on virtual reality prove to be helpful in these areas. This is because gaming keeps the mind busy, and patients focus on something other than the pain or anxiety they are experiencing. Gaming also releases endorphins, just like exercising! Endorphins are often called the “happy” hormone, and they naturally lower pain levels when they are released.

Brain Growth 

Early studies have shown that playing a certain classic game can actually grow specific regions of the brain. Professor Simone Kuhn from the Max-Planck institute of Human Development in Berlin conducted the tests that show how playing video games can actually give you a bigger brain. She used an fMRI (functional MRI) to scan the brains of her subjects over a period of two months. During this time, participants were asked to play Super Mario 64 DS on a regular basis. Kuhn found that subjects who played regularly experienced actual growth in the pre-fontal cortex, right hippocampus, and cerebellum. These regions of the brain are all involved in fine motor control and navigation.

Kuhn believes the growth is attributed to how the game is split across the screen. Players have to navigate a 3D world at the top of the screen while following a 2D map at the bottom. This causes the player to navigate in different ways simultaneously.

Treatment of Neurological, Mental, Learning, and Personality Disorders

While there is still much testing and game developing to be done before this becomes a reality, researchers believe video games may be effective in treating many brain disorders. The list includes ADHD, PTSD, Schizophrenia, brain injuries, strokes, Alzheimer’s Disease, and Dyslexia. Any mental disorder that causes brain regions to shrink or change could potentially be treated by the right kind of video game. That is pretty amazing if you think about it.

For so long we’ve been worried that games are ruining our children. As it turns out, playing the right ones might give them—and their parents—a cognitive boost! The research does show, however, that extended play doesn’t increase the potential benefits. In fact, it can actually counter-act some of them. So, pick your favorite game and spend an hour or two a day exercising your brain.

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