Building a Better Brain, One Game at a Time

Posted by Lisa Galarneau on May 19, 2014 in Games and Learning -- Share:

Do you have a New Year’s resolution to improve your brain’s performance?  If so, playing more games might just be the answer!

In a previous article I provided an overview of the types of skills we develop from game play.  In this article I will take it a bit deeper, looking specifically at cognitive development and how games actually improve our brains.

First of all, it’s important to understand that brains are not the static organs we once thought they were.  In fact, according to theories of neuroplasticity, brains constantly evolve and adapt to stimuli in our environments.  Games offer great options to improve brains by focusing on interactivity and helping to increase mental fitness.  These ideas aren’t simply promotional hype, either.  There are numerous studies conducted by leading researchers who have collected and analyzed data specific to game play and cognitive improvement.

 
Some specific ways game play improves our brains:

Cognitive Processing

The scientific journal Nature recently published a study indicating that playing video games can boost brain and cognitive function.  The study included 46 participants aged 60-85, who played games for 12 hours in one month.  Not only did they improve their skills significantly in that time, but by the end of the study they were able to match the performance of much younger people playing the same game.  In particular the study notes that the participants improved their multi-tasking abilities, a skill set that tends to decline with age.

Hand-eye Coordination

Another area of interest for scientists looking at brain performance is hand-eye coordination and reflexes.  This research arose from anecdotal evidence that surgeons who play video games tend to make fewer mistakes when conducting surgeries and some even use video games as a way of warming up for surgery.  It was also found that surgeons who played games were able to conduct procedures 27% faster than those who did not play games.  It was also noted that gamers have improved reflexes over non-gamers and have faster reaction times (20% faster reflexes – 100 milliseconds faster) than those people who do not play games.

 

Fine Motor Skills

Fine motor skills are the ones that allow you to develop physical dexterity for micro tasks like writing.  Studies show that game play improves hand motor skills by encouraging the brain to connect on-screen content with their own interactions using a mouse or controller.  In one study, researchers trained Chinese migrant workers with no computer experience to play the game Pong using a mouse.  After two weeks of training, the migrant workers performed just as well as college students who regularly used computers.

Organizing, Prioritizing, Problem-solving and Decision-making

Also referred to as executive functioning, organization and prioritization are essential elements of time management for academic and life success, and games provide excellent arenas for practicing these skills.  Organizing time, tasks and resources is the cornerstone of independent learning, and being able to self-manage in this arena is critical to success in the modern era. In addition, games center on problem solving and good gamers are those who can make informed decisions quickly.

Emotional/Social Intelligence

Relieving stress through games is an excellent way to deal with pent-up emotions that may negatively affect performance in work, school and life in general.  In addition, many games allow players to improve their social and cooperation skills. “Gamers are reaping the social benefits when their friends come over and they play computer games together. They are often strategizing, managing complex tasks and forming and managing teams” (Mark McMahon, Edith Cowan University).

Self-confidence

Developing confidence in one’s abilities is a key first step to success in the world.  Games help by allowing players to achieve success through repeated trial and error, which is one of the fundamental ways humans learn.  It is also important to be able to recover quickly from failures and apply knowledge of what works and what doesn’t to novel problem-solving challenges.  This is as important to life in the real world as it is to games.  Knowing that failure doesn’t mean the end of the road is a key to resilience and continued success.

Spatial Intelligence

Spatial intelligence refers to the ability to successfully navigate physical spaces and is relevant to a wide array of real life situations.  One study conducted in the Netherlands found that games like first-person shooters ‘ improved a player’s capacity to think about objects in three dimensions better than other kinds of games and just as well as academic courses to enhance these same skills’.  Spatial intelligence tends to vary widely according to gender, and studies have found that video game practice is effective for both boys and girls.

Visual Abilities, Listening, and Attention Skills

Sorting through complex environments and an abundance of information is a critical skill in modern life.  Visual and auditory attention, in particular, improve perception by allowing humans to incorporate and sort through a whole range of inputs and stimuli.  Games play an important role by encouraging players to take note of important visual and auditory clues in the games they play.  In one study, gamers demonstrated significant improvements in memory recall, based on their focused attention.

Pattern-matching and Prediction

Brain researchers like Jeff Hawkins have recently identified that intelligence is based on pattern recognition, matching and recognition. Games allow players to learn to decipher patterns created by game developers and improve their game mastery through predictions of system behavior.

 

Science, Math, Engineering and Technology (STEM) Thinking

It is well established that educating citizens in core areas like science, math, engineering and technology is paramount for supporting a thriving economy in our future.  Educators are now experimenting with using games to support these types of curricula by increasing motivation to engage and develop the scientific and mathematical thinking necessary.  In addition, there are many efforts underway to teach kids of all ages coding skills and game design.

Coping With Disabilities

One emerging area of serious game development is using games to assist with cognitive phenomena like autism, ADD and ADHD, Alzheimer’s disease and age-related dementia.  Game feedback can assist players in ways face-to-face therapy doesn’t, by allowing highly consistent feedback and progression in response to player inputs.

Brain Training

There are a whole range of Big Fish games that will help improve your brain’s performance.

Hidden Object Games sharpen observation and attention skills and increase visual ability.

Time Management Games help players identify and prioritize tasks and resources.

Pet Games allow players to flex their bonding and nurturing skills, leading to greater emotional and social intelligence.

Real-time Strategy Games improve pattern recognition and prediction.

Action Games can lead to improvements in visual attention and spatial intelligence.

Puzzle Games improve problem-solving and decision-making skills.

Word Games help players increase literacy and prediction skills.

Brain Teasers support overall cognitive functioning.

 Do you find that playing games flexes your brain?  Tell us how!

Written by

Dr. Lisa Galarneau is a socio-cultural anthropologist, futurist and games researcher. She's been playing video games since 1981 (Pong!) and loves adventure-style games, RPGs, online games, simulations and anything novel. Her love for games has been passed onto her gamer kid, and she spends a lot of time observing and pondering the future of games.

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