Why & How Video Games Improve Cognition

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There really is no intuitive reason to assume that a cognitively engaging activity can harm your cognition. After all, video games fully engage attention and train you to follow rules, concentrate, ignore distractions, imagine, make decisions, remember new things, prioritize objectives, and anticipate developments with clear feedback. As long as there is no addiction – “losing control over starting or stopping an activity and difficulty functioning without the activity” – they seem good for the brain.

The fundamental reason games improve cognition is simple – they are fun, engaging, active, rewarding, and progress-oriented. All of these factors improve cognition by engaging the eyes, ears, voice, and body. The mechanism here is that specific cognitive processes develop over time because they are rehearsed, refined, and engaged via the game. But there’s a little more to it than this.

Gaming enhances specific cognitive processes over time because they are rehearsed, refined, and engaged in a context. Most engaging games improve reaction time, decision-making, multitasking, memory, and attention. Click To Tweet

Myth: Video games don’t improve cognitive skills

  • Myth: Some people, particularly some parents and educators, think that gaming is just a distraction that wastes time with no benefit apart from instant gratification.
  • Consequences: Parents and educators actively prevent a good way to keep the brain engaged. Gamers sacrifice their game time and engage in less productive hobbies like drinking or passive Instagram scrolling.
  • Realistic version: Videogames sharpen specific cognitive skills but don’t always make people smarter out of context. Cognitive functions used while gaming improve with gaming practice. They also help improve cognition in mental retardation, ADHD, and dyslexia. However, there are downsides to excessive play: neglecting communication, and addiction which worsens cognitive health, physical health, mental health, and daily functioning.
  • Solutions: Accept games as good, active, and productive stimulation for the brain, as long as there is no addiction. Use games to develop the brain and its core processes in a fun, effective way.

This article doesn’t cover the harmful effects of games, such as toxic behavior and the risk of aggression. Here’s an article on that.

Videogames sharpen specific cognitive skills but don't always make people smarter out of context. Cognitive functions used while gaming improve via gaming. They also improve cognition in mental retardation, ADHD, and dyslexia. Click To Tweet

Fact: Video games improve cognition in specific ways

The nature of popular commercial games

Most online and offline gamers play action games where the gamer controls a character or avatar of a person/creature and fights in the game’s universe. Some of these are with other gamers in a cooperative way, while others are single-player solo games against built-in obstacles. Games like Minecraft focus on slowly building things and collecting resources while exploring, while games like PubG and Call of duty are fast-paced “First-person shooting” games to kill enemies (other players). Some popular games are strategy games where the user can control armies or hordes of creatures, build a base camp, and fight others who do the same, with a good mix of action, exploration, strategy, and creation. These tend to be multiplayer games with a few single-player options.

Then there are simple and complex non-action games like TETRIS (puzzle-like), Flight Simulator (operating a flight with realistic controls), Cities: Skylines (building and planning cities), and The SIMS (social and drama game). Some games have all elements like Grand Theft Auto 5 where a character has the freedom to choose seemingly infinite options without following strict rules (open world game) and lead an alternate game life. Each game has a “gameplay” guided by rules and choices. TETRIS has limited choices and rules; breaking them is game over. Games like GTA 5 have few rules and many options, so there is no such game over.

A lot depends on the “load” of gaming. Extremely light and easy games don’t affect cognition. However, games that need skill and effort do affect cognition – they improve cognitive processes that are repeatedly used while gaming. So whether you are strategizing, exploring, shooting in first person or 3rd person, or simply following instructions, all games have unique cognitive benefits if we play and progress in them but stop before addiction. As gamers become impressively skilled, their cognitive profile improves because of the skill. For example, the top 0.2% League of Legends players have enhanced cognitive skills like control over decisions and reactions and multitasking compared to average ranking gamers with similar experience.

The TETRIS hype

TETRIS is one of the most popular games that represents the cognitive benefits of video gaming. TETRIS is a simple game where one uses spatial reasoning to orient objects, working memory to remember which block is coming up next, and reaction time to adjust for increasing speeds of the falling blocks. At the higher cognitive level, TETRIS needs decision-making and planning based on a block’s orientation. Research has reliably shown that TETRIS improves the core skill of spatial reasoning – orienting and planning according to shapes and locations. It is also likely to improve working memory (through constant practice of storing the sequence of shapes and built structures) for those with ADHD. Even in pre-teen learning disabled children, TETRIS can improve spatial abilities and attention. Generally, for adolescents, TETRIS seems to improve the speed of mental rotation and speed of visualization just after 6 hours of training. For adults, it may not improve skills enough to generalize out of context. Whether it helps or not might depend on the game’s difficulty- the effort to rotate shapes and plan under pressure.

Action games make players faster and sharper

Action video game players and those who are trained in it (avg. age 20 yrs) over 10 to 30 hours for a few weeks develop better visual short-term memory with a better ability to spot and handle multiple items on a screen. Shooter video games develop counting and recognition, a core skill in first-person shooting games: spotting enemies, friendlies, objects, etc. Action gamers are also likely to have faster processing speed, lower reaction time (where speed is prioritized over accuracy), and smoother multitasking skills compared to non-action gamers.

Video game players who play any type of game – strategic, first-person shooter, battle royale, or open-world – for at least 5 hours a week have better response time (by about 190ms, which is almost 50% faster than the average person). They also have slightly higher accuracy in non-emotional decision-making (by about 2%). Their brain scans reveal enhanced activity in decision-making and sensory-motor areas of the brain, which reflect their improved response to auditory, visual, and tactile sensations.

Each game uses specific cognitive processes and develops those

The first review on how video games affect brain activity and cognition concludes that video games do improve cognitive function based on which cognitive function is developed through gaming. Some games build memory for specific objects, most enhance visual attention and some form of decision-making related to visual details, others improve reaction time and overall attention, and some improve a little bit of everything. The review included 116 studies with many genres of games played by all age ranges at various intensities of gameplay. Only 4 studies described the negative effects of video gaming, mainly when it was excess and/or violent. These effects were lower verbal IQ, lower social information processing, poor health through neglect, and desensitization to violence. The main reason is that video game addiction interferes with quality social time in real life, which removes the opportunity to improve/maintain communication skills. The brain follows a “use it or lose it” principle for skills.

Playing games recruit specific cognitive processes, and they improve with more gameplay. They also transfer to other domains where similar cognitive processes are used. For example, games focusing on reaction time might enhance reaction time. Those that develop physical rotation will enhance perspectives. Those utilizing counting and object spotting will improve object recognition. Games needing quick decisions to stop, go ahead, or change paths will improve quick decision-making and reaction time. However, video games may not enhance all cognitive abilities at a broad level, just the ones that are used and refined via gaming. This means there is a near-transfer effect but not a far-transfer effect -skills transfer to similar areas, but gaming benefits do not generalize across unrelated areas.

Since video games are likely to improve specific cognitive skills that are involved in the gaming experience, each genre of game or each specific game might enhance some cognitive skills. Real-time strategy (RTS) games like World of Warcraft, Age of Empires, Clash of Clans, etc., where a player uses decision-making to build a stronghold and use resources to advance and complete milestones, improve cognitive flexibility. That is the ability to multitask, shift thinking, keep unrelated things in memory, and keep going back and forth between objectives one after the other, etc. While first-person shooters (FPS) like Counter-Strike and PugG, where the goal is to point and shoot while trying to avoid getting shot, improve attention, reduce mental lag, and drop in concentration due to constantly shifting attention. This generally means that RTS and FPS games improve attention, decision-making, and multitasking. However, RTS improves shifting mindsets more, and FPS improves shiting attention more. So in an ideal world, RTS gamers are well suited for jobs where they have to oversee projects and implement thorough decisions, and FPS gamers are well suited for jobs that need monitoring and quick decision-making.

Games help those with ADHD and Dyslexia

Video games of any kind are a valid treatment for ADHD. They tend to improve cognitive functioning across the board for attention-deficit hyperactivity disorder and reduce symptoms. Most commonly, there is an improvement in controlled behavior and focus. Many ADHD problems in children are not general problems – they are task-dependent problems. So the ability to focus depends on what task the child is doing. Researchers saw that ADHD children perform just as well as non-ADHD children in video games but perform worse when doing a strict cognitive task without a gaming context. So video games can be a good way to maintain cognitive functioning for ADHD through context. And have some therapeutic effects like less distress from poor performance on tests. However, this benefit also puts children at risk for problematic gaming and addiction.

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In children with developmental dyslexia, a condition where reading skills are disrupted, video games can improve attention and the ability to decode and comprehend words correctly. Only successfully learning video games and improving at them is likely to induce brain plasticity that helps different parts of the brain compensate for dyslexia-related shortcomings.

Video games are a great way to restore and improve cognitive functioning in ADHD, dyslexic, and special needs individuals. Click To Tweet

Video games affect cognition because of context and transfer effects

So far, we’ve seen how video game training improves specific cognitive skills. What about general intelligence? Contrary to expectations, video games do not improve general intelligence, and skills developed via gaming do not transfer and morph into unrelated skills. For example, a shooting game would improve attention, but it won’t improve overall intelligence and boost language skills. Still, there is evidence that brain games do improve higher-order cognitive skills called executive functions in children. Executive functions handle planning, decision-making, and self-control.

Mobile “brain-training” games and cognitive training companies may lead us to think that we could select a cognitive skill and train just that instead of using an entire game. However, research repeatedly shows that this abstract way of training a cognitive skill isn’t enough to have any real benefit in any context outside of similar tests. The brain likes a context with cognitive skills embedded within instead of just cognitive tasks. Context improves cognitive skills. Video games create context with a story, unrelated tasks, visual details, sounds, etc., and that context amplifies skill development.

We can reliably predict intelligence from game performance. The same cognitive processes that give us intelligence also give us game performance. And game performance improves through practice improving intelligence with it! There is a deep connection between the two due to transfer effects: Specific cognitive skills used in gaming improve with gaming and they transfer to other areas and generalize so you can use them in non-game contexts.

Video games have a strong near-transfer effect where specific cognitive skills apply in similar contexts (e.g., pointing and shooting improves visual attention at search-related tasks), and a weak far-transfer effect where skills improve out of context (e.g., task switching in Age of Empires improves project management). The far-transfer effect is a meta-skill that can improve over time, especially when the game metaphor is used as a template to process new events in life. Children may show more of it where strategic thinking in games improves overall memory and problem-solving capacity, making games a rich way to learn and broaden mental horizons.

So how long would video game benefits last? Research shows that older people (65 and above) show improvements in multitasking for 6 years after becoming a gamer. While multitasking benefits last, concentration developed through gaming drops. So ideally, a habit of gaming can maintain cognitive functioning in the aging brain.

And like expected with any learning and practice, gaming rewires the brain to the degree you play the game. If enough skills develop via multiple games, they may reflect a general improvement in intelligence, but that’s a big IF.

Gamers together strong

Cooperative gaming, such as LAN gaming, raiding, and multiplayer gaming, can improve social cognition. So Among Us, DotA, CS, and PubG can have their additional benefits. A team that games together tends to be more productive than a team that doesn’t game together. Since gaming teaches cooperation and primes players to understand each other’s roles toward a common goal, multiplayer gaming is a valid team-building exercise with demonstrable improvements in team productivity. All forms of cooperative and competitive gaming can help.

A team that games together, builds together. Video gaming is a fun, cost-effective way to build teams and help the workforce act as a unit. Click To Tweet

Games create new thought patterns

Gaming is the birthplace of many memes and short forms. One of the most significant ones is “the cake is a lie” from the sci-fi game “portal.” The phrase means a promised reward is a lure, and you won’t get it even if you reach the finish line. These thoughts become templates of thinking that are applied to different areas, which gives gamers a unique perspective in certain contexts. Other slang vocabulary and shorthand concepts like “unlocking a new trait (learning something new that guides behavior),” “gaining XP (getting experience points to level up),” “nerfing and buffing (making something weaker or stronger),” “carry (one person does maximum work and other weaker players join as support),” etc., also become thought templates that change how gamers think about the world and environment.

Short forms like TTK (time to kill), GGWP (good game well played), and OP (overpowered) are standardized information-rich ideas in a broad context that emphasize speed of thinking and reaction, especially because there is little space and time to communicate while gaming, which also starts improving multitasking skills. These are all metacognitive skills that develop through the entire gaming experience – thoughts about thoughts, strategies about communication, etc.

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