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Plugged In: Can Video Games Improve Intelligence?

What if playing games could make you smarter? The rise in popularity of video games since their commercial inception in the 1970’s and 80’s has been monumental. As of 2004, the Entertainment Software Association estimated at least 60% of Americans alone play some form of video game. Most middle to upper-class families (especially if they have children) own at least one gaming console at this point as if it were any other normal entertainment electronic, like a television or computer. Countless mothers around the world scold their children for gaming for too long – claiming that it will “fry their brains,” or some similar warning of the impending damage to come. Is that really possible, though? Can video games fry your brain, or make you stupid? Or, perhaps, is it just the opposite – can playing video games actually improve your brain power or intelligence? To examine this, we must know what we mean by intelligence: is it your IQ, your GPA, or your SAT scores perhaps? These are the types of measurements people tend to think of when referring to intelligence. However, “intelligence” can take a slightly different, underlying form that isn’t necessarily academics-based: our cognitive processing abilities. While there isn’t any solid proof that playing video games can increase your academic intelligence (unless of course you are playing an educational game), repeated training with video games can definitely improve your cognitive processing and speed of functioning. This can include everything from reaction time to even adaptability in new situations.

Researchers at Queen Mary University of London and University College London did a study relatively recently on the effects of video games on cognitive flexibility. They define cognitive flexibility as “the ability to simultaneously engage in multiple aspects of thought and mentally shift in response to changing goals and environmental condition,” or, essentially, “creative problem solving” (np). This study involved participants playing different sorts of video games, such as real-time strategy or life simulator games. It was found that after extensive training on the more intensive strategy games, namely the fast-paced StarCraft, participants in the study performed significantly better on psychological tests and demonstrated higher levels of adaptability.

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Very similar results come from a study by the U.S. Defense Department’s Office of Naval Research. Dr. Ray Perez, a program officer at the Office of Naval Research’s warfighter performance department, spoke on the Defense Department’s podcast “Armed with Science: Research and Applications for the Modern Military” about the effect that video games may have on what he calls fluid intelligence – or the ability to change and adapt strategies for new situations, extremely similar to the concept of cognitive flexibility from the previous study. Perez states for the past several decades, fluid intelligence was believed to be an inherent, unchangeable thing; they have found this to be not true (np). Repeated training with strategy or action video games has been found to not only increase fluid intelligence, but also improve perceptive abilities and short-term memory – changes that, according to Perez, can last up to two and a half years without continued training. And in fact, the Office of Naval Research has discovered that those that play video games on a regular basis “perform 10 to 20 percent higher in terms of perceptual and cognitive ability than normal people that are non-game players” (Ohab np).

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Renowned neuroscientist Dr. Michael Merzenich has pointed to the logic in the improvement of cognitive abilities from extensive play of video games; he has referred to games as “controlled training regimens delivered in highly motivating [behavioral] contexts” (np). Truly, gaming requires high levels of cognitive processing without any real perceived effort – you are having too much fun to realize your brain is being trained! Merzenich states that it is simply to be expected and is really no surprise that various levels of processing are documented as highly improved from extensive training with video games; speed of processing, attention control, social and cognitive control, and even memory are just a few elements of processing that Merzenich points to as being improved by gaming. Additionally, he states that training exercises using the design of video games have been created to effectively improve efficiency of perception and cognition in very specific, controlled ways; in fact, when trained on these “games,” not only were overall mental benefits seen, but, when used with students, acted as an accurate prediction tool for their future academic success (Bavelier np).

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Neuroscience experts Green and Bavelier state that video games do definitely have many cognitive benefits, such as significant improvement of reaction time, coordination, spatial skills, and visual attention. For instance, they imply that the visuospatial skills required to play video games cover such a wide range, that it far surpasses the current visual rehabilitation methods that are used for reduction of visual impairment (Green and Bavelier 6); it seems that the logical next step is the prospect of using video games as rehabilitation for visually impaired individuals. Additionally, they bring up one of the earliest studies done on video games, conducted by Griffith in 1983; this study showed that video game players vastly outperform non-gamers in tests of hand-eye coordination.


Interestingly, Green and Bavelier go on to state that playing video games releases a staggering amount of dopamine – about comparable to “amphetamines [being] injected intravenously” (16). This is in fact an extremely positive thing in regards to your intelligence and adaptability: the heavy rise in dopamine levels are generally observed in the areas of the brain that deal with learning, and it is theorized that this massive spike in dopamine is critical in the brain’s response to new material, helping it to reorganize and learn new information. This not only benefits young people, though. They point to a study by Drew and Waters on the effects of video games on the elderly. Cognitive decline is an extremely unfortunate but inevitable result of old age; however, after having a group of individuals in their 60s and 70s train on an Atari video game called Crystal Castles for two months, significant improvement was seen in their hand eye-coordination as well as their general and verbal intelligence, with the elderly participants even stating that they found they were “more careful in daily activities and had fewer mishaps around the house” (qtd. in Green and Bavelier 18). Green and Bavelier state that this shows video games have not only stopped the cognitive decline caused by ageing, they have actually reversed it (18). This is an incredibly significant finding: imagine the implications of being able to partially reverse the deterioration of cognitive processing and intelligence caused by growing old simply by playing games.

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Video games are so woven into our culture now that you would be hard-pressed to find a younger person that has never played any form of video game. Some people consider this to be a very bad thing – that the more “plugged in” you are to these games, per se, the bigger negative impact it can have on you. However, while there are always risks with overdoing anything, there are definite, proven positive cognitive effects that can be attained from gaming. They have been seen to improve adaptability – be it in the form of cognitive flexibility or fluid intelligence – along with speed of processing, hand-eye coordination, and even memory. Additionally, video games may be the next generation of learning and rehabilitation tools, even for the elderly or physically impaired. While the main aim of video games is, of course, to entertain, they may just improve your intelligence.

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Works Cited

Bavelier, Daphne, et al. "Brains On Video Games." Nature Reviews Neuroscience 12.12 (2011): 763-768. Academic Search Premier. Web. 30 Mar. 2015.


Green, C. Shawn, and Daphne Bavelier. "The cognitive neuroscience of video games." Digital media: Transformations in human communication (2006): 211-223.


Ohab, John. "Armed with Science: Research and Applications for the Modern Military." Interview. Podcast. United States Department of Defense. United States Government, 20 Jan. 2010. Web. 30 Mar. 2015.


Queen Mary, University of London. "Playing Video Games Can Boost Brain Power." ScienceDaily. ScienceDaily, 21 Aug. 2013. Web. 30 Mar. 2015.