How Games Help: Cognitive Tasks


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 a hyperbolic generalization, but there has been 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…

Method one is to measure how well people who reportedly play video games regularly perform on cognitive tasks, then that is compared to people who don’t play games. While tests such as this have shown that those who play games perform better, it doesn’t prove that games actually are responsible for that improvement. After all, people who are better that those tasks may just enjoy games more since it is an outlet for that particular skill.

Method two 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 the thesis playing games can improve cognitive functioning.

"Different sorts of video games exercise different kinds of mental abilities. In contrast to fast-paced action games, strategy role-playing and puzzle games exercise problem-solving skills of a more reflective nature."

- Peter Gray, Psychology Today

In a particular analysis by Benoit Bediou and Colleagues (Psychological Bulletin), 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 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 the 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 cop procedural styled evidence web. It’s 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 within the right story, will bring clarity to the chaos. This is a particular cognitive function that games can help quite a bit with.

For the first step in this task, we can see from the data that 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 then a game will give you stakes to sorting those factors 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 shines when sorting precedes 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.  


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. Over the years many researchers have explored how play can increase our creativity capacities and core cognitive development. With video games, 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 a 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 own experience, all serves to build an individual’s ability to not only invent, but do so with nimble 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 months or years of skill building in order to master. Think about how you felt when you looked back on what you had accomplished, and contrast that to 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, and reward us with increasing our capacity for persistence. We can find tools to build this skill in the real world, but often those spaces are far more elusive. When playing a game, the feeling of progress is solidified and the sense of achievement made crisp and clear. Nearly every game is based on the idea that doing something better over time, learning, growing, and improving at a specific task feels satisfying. 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.

What else can games help with?


How Games Help:


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How Games Help: Mental Health

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Marguerite Dibble