Cognitive Benefits and Games

One of the easiest assertions to make about video-games is they make you “smarter”, or more specifically: ”better at doing things with your brain”. The former is of course an unsupported hyperbolic generalization, but there have been strong scientifically verified testing that shows playing games can help with certain mental tasks. There are two typical methods for testing how video-games can improve the way a person processes certain tasks, such as visual tracking, top-down processing, etc.

One method is to measure how well people who reportedly play video games regularly perform on said tasks compared to people who don’t play games. While tests such as this have show that those who play games perform better, it doesn’t prove that games actually are responsible for that improvement. For all we know people who are better that those tasks just enjoy games more since it is an outlet for that skill. The second method is more scientifically sound. In this method people who don’t play games are tested, then introduced to games, and after various intervals tested again. These tests have also shown improvements in cognitive tasks and therefore provide a much stronger grounds for a thesis that playing games can improve cognitive functioning.

In a particular analysis by xxx, even 10-30 hours of video play significantly improved performance on tests of perception, attention, spatial cognition, and cognitive flexibility. These tests also showed that playing different types of games (what a surprise) flexed different cognitive muscles. Games that focused on strategy for instance increase situational awareness, where games focused on action increased you ability to sort complicated visual information quickly.

Given this data from multiple studies on the cognitive benefits that can be provided by video games, we’d like to dig into three that we find particularly compelling.   


Executive Functioning

Imagine you’re standing in front of a classic evidence web filled with pictures and snippets and stories. Your job is to not just find a specific piece of data, but to understanding how finding each piece in the best order and contextualizing it in the right story, brings harmony to the chaos. This is a particular cognitive function that games can help quite a bit with.

On the most basic level, playing games improves an individual’s ability to sort a bunch of visual information coming at them quickly. Games put multiple factors in front of you, some far more than others, and give you stakes to sorting them in a meaningful way. This has resulted in studies that have shown playing games can help significantly in treating dyslexia and amblyopia (also referred to as “lazy eye”).

The ability to visually sort is a key part of executive functioning, but really comes together when that sorting allows a person to take informed action. Games help people build the ability to analyze risk, make choices, and act on them towards objectives. Some psychologists have theorized that games are triggering our natural need for “Risky Play”, a form of play that helps us know our limits, and more importantly learn how to get up and move forward once we hit them, both emotionally and physically.  

Creativity

Imagine you’re standing on a beach. It’s littered with a myriad of shells, an unending library of small stones, the sculptural mass of the sand itself. Your task is to make something from this chaos, and as soon as the ocean washes it away, look around, find what’s left, and do so again. Creativity, particularly the ability to be flexibly creative, is a cognitive skill games can help flourish.

In this particular area, the benefits of games share much with the benefits of play. Many over the years have explored how play can increase our creativity capacities, especially as children. What has been shown with testing related to video games is that individuals who started playing games when they previously did not, showed marked improvements in a variety of creativity measures.

The most notable of these is in the area of flexibility. This is the part of your creativity that allows you to move nimbly from one idea to the next, constantly iterative and solving in order to create what you are seeking. The ability for games to present a particular scenario, then quickly flex it into a new situation, a new criteria for success, a new set of tools that you can use to create your playful experience, all serves to build an individual’s ability to not only invent but do so with nimble persistence.

Persistence

Which leads us to our final key cognitive benefit, the ability to simply keep trying. Think back on a time in your life when you accomplished something difficult, something that took you multiple tries, maybe even building a skill over months or years to be able to do. Think about how you felt when you looked back on what you had accomplished, and contrast that you how you felt every time you had to summon the energy to keep trying.

Games provide us with clean and clear containers within which to build skills. This is sometimes the case in our real world, but often things are far more elusive. When playing a game, the feeling of progress is solidified and the sense of achievement is made sharp and crisp. Nearly every game is based on the idea of doing something better over time, learning, growing, and improving at a specific task. When you are able to do that in a controlled space that rewards that persistence, your ability to dedicate yourself towards challenges in real life can improve as well.


Marguerite Dibble