Modern Life

Want to build a better brain? Play video games

Studies show that complex, immersive video gaming can boost memory, focus and a host of other cognitive skills.

By Garage Staff — September 12, 2018

Have you caught Fortnite fever? Or maybe you’re still playing Candy Crush on your commute. (Hey, no judgment!)

Well, you have lots of company. Sixty percent of Americans play video games daily, according to a 2018 report, and 183 million of them play at least an hour a day, says game designer and researcher Jane McGonigal. Globally, people are spending 3 billion hours a week playing video games.

That’s a whole lot of screen time. But wait — it turns out that’s not bad news. In fact, a slew of studies have found that even short bouts of immersive gaming can deliver important cognitive and analytical benefits to both young and old.

Adept at any age

In 2013, researchers at the University of California at San Francisco tested a group of 60- to 85-year-olds on a 3D race-car game that demanded multitasking in the face of various distractions. After just 12 hours of training over the course of a month, the participants showed improvements in both working memory and sustained attention. Better yet, testing six months after the training ended showed that the senior gamers had retained their new skills. So organizing gaming circles in nursing homes and senior centers could be just what the doctor ordered.

First person shooter (FPS) games, especially, have been found to sharpen cognitive skills. A 2014 paper in the journal American Psychologist noted that compared to control participants, first-time FPS players “show faster and more accurate attention allocation, higher spatial resolution in visual processing, and enhanced mental rotation abilities.”


Roy Mehta / Getty Images

Increased focus in a world of distractions

Effective decision-making under conditions of uncertainty — life, basically — also appears to improve with regular gaming practice.

In a 2017 German study, researchers at Ruhr-University Bochum compared the ability of gamers and non-gamers to remember information from cue cards and then combine that information to predict weather conditions. The video gamers showed greater retention of the cue card knowledge and made better predictions, especially in conditions of uncertainty.

Most recently, a Chinese study released in February showed that spending just one hour playing “action video games” improved subjects’ “visual selective attention,” which enhances processing of relevant visual information and suppresses processing of less relevant detail, increasing their capacity to focus.

The researchers tested a group of League of Legends players, including those ranking in the top seven percent of all players and those in the bottom 11 percent, both before and after one hour of playing action video games. After the session, both groups tested higher in visual selective attention than they had just one hour before.

All gaming isn’t created equal

Now, all these benefits probably don’t mean it’s healthy to fire up the controllers 24/7. Researchers in a 2017 study found that screen time for kids before bed is directly tied to less sleep, poorer sleep quality and being more tired in the mornings. (And it’s probably not super healthy for adults, either.)

Moderation is vital, and so is the quality of your technology. Research has also established why it’s so important to use a high-quality, large-screen gaming system with state-of-the-art visuals, to fully reap the cognitive benefits that sophisticated gaming can deliver.

A 2015 study found that the more immersive a video game, the more likely that playing it will result in functional cognitive gains. In this study, the video gamers who favored complex 3D video games performed better on a demanding recognition memory task than participants who played 2D games. Plus, novice video gamers given just two weeks of training on the 3D video game Super Mario 3D World showed improved mnemonic discrimination and improvements on a virtual water-maze task — while 2D controls showed no such improvements.


After just 12 hours of training over the course of a month, participants showed improvements in both working memory and sustained attention.

The fun factor

Of course, this is all icing on the cake for gamers and the people who love them. The bottom line is, people play video games because they’re fun! The sheer joy of moving skillfully through a challenging landscape is thrilling. Plus, games can bring us closer to our friends and help us meet new ones. A lot of games, like World of Warcraft, encourage working together cooperatively, and the rise of professional esports has nurtured entire communities based around team play and competition. 

Video games can also be a force for pedagogical good. Even if they forbid playing in class, some smart teachers are finding ways to integrate massively popular video games into their curricula. Middle school teacher Kelly Hart has used Fortnite terminology as a communications and teaching rubric. “We’ve developed a whole slew of classroom analogies,” she told Vice.

A few bits of lingo: “Med kit/chug jug: you need some help on your homework or aren’t doing your best. Solo: gotta work on your own. Pickaxe: pencil. It’s insane how many of my students understand,” Hart says. A crowdsourcing curricula website called Teachers Pay Teachers offers dozens of lesson plans designed to make Fortnite-related topics a stimulating educational tool. And a Reddit user recently shared a comprehensive Fortnite map his teacher developed to teach the class topography.

Game designer McGonigal is an evangelist for both the fun and functional benefits of gaming. As she explains in a 2010 TED Talk, video games can impart a “real sense of optimism in our abilities and our opportunities to get better and succeed. [They give us] more physical and mental energy to engage with difficult problems.”

So game on! You — and your brain — deserve it.


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