Video games can be good for brain health?

Once thought to rot our children's brains, new research on video games is finding quite the opposite
Chris Betcher, flickr.com, CC BY-SA 2.0

One would be hard-pressed to find a child or young adult who doesn’t indulge in video games nowadays, through either a smartphone, computer, or gaming console. Many neuroscientists now believe the negative stigmas formerly attached to gaming — as a pastime reserved for the socially inept or immature — no longer endure.

Some recently published research on the brain contests the old wives’ tale that playing video games rots the brain — in fact, they may even facilitate learning. Studies conducted in the past decade have found improvements in cognitive function linked to playing video games, such as gains in processing speed, memory, and attention.

Video games involve mostly active forms of learning through practicing and doing, rather than by passively watching and listening. Also, the player often encounters an increasing level of difficulty throughout the game, which leads to continuous challenges to overcome — and subsequent rewards to reap.

“There is certainly a consensus in the field that video games have an effect on performance in a number of different cognitive domains and areas,” said Craig Stark, a Professor of Neurobiology and Behavior at the University of California, Irvine. “Given that the video game industry has grown so huge, this means that there are more consumers, more money, better games, better hardware — and it opens up all these possibilities.”

One of those possibilities lies in harnessing the power of video games for educational settings. The immersive and highly entertaining nature of video games appeals to children and young adults, as opposed to the often drab software created for the sole purpose of education or brain-training.

For instance, Stark published a study on how playing video games may boost memory and stimulate the brain in young adults. His experiment used a 3-D video game that immersed the player in a virtual fantasy world — specifically, “Super Mario 3-D World.” Participants aged 18 to 22 years with little to no gaming background played the game for 30 minutes daily. After two weeks, the 3-D gaming group improved its memory test scores by 12 percent, while a control group showed no significant gains.

Perhaps then one path to successful implementation of video gaming in schools is the creation of immersive software that will lead to enthusiastic engagement from students. Based on these results and others, educational practitioners are starting to collaborate with game designers to develop video games that achieve both goals — captivating, fun virtual worlds that also help students meet their learning goals.

“As computers have progressed and gotten to the point where they can make a really good depiction of a wonderful fantasy environment or a real environment, this opens up opportunities for people to experience things that they wouldn’t be able to,” said Stark. “There are all kinds of beneficial effects by giving yourself something to explore and learn.”