If you spend more than an hour a day playing video games, that’s 5 percent of your life. Will this investment of time do any good for your brain?
This is a question that my colleagues and I at UC Santa Barbara have been studying for the past two decades. We want to know if playing video games can increase cognitive skills: In other words, can the game make you smarter? We conducted experiments, conducted meta-analyses of research literature and even published several books: Computer games for learning and Handbook of Game-Based Learning.
The results were surprising—with some bad news, good news, even better news, and some prospects for the future based on rigorous scientific research.
My team focuses on what I call cognitive consequence experiments. Our researchers take a group of people and give them a test that assesses some cognitive skill, such as attention, perception, mental flexibility, spatial processing, reasoning, or memory. Then we split the group in half. One half played a video game targeting this skill for two or more hours over multiple sessions; the other half engage in some other activity, such as playing a word search game. Then we give them the same test again.
First, the bad news. A careful review of published research shows that most off-the-shelf video games do not improve cognitive skills. This applies to strategy games, adventure games, puzzle games and many more brain training games.
Then the good news. There seems to be one genre of commercial games that can improve cognitive skills—and it might surprise you. I’m playing action video gamesincluding first-person shooter games, can continuously exercise your perceptual attention with immediate feedback, in a variety of ever-changing contexts, and with increasing levels of challenge.
Finally, even better news. Some research groups have succeeded in creating nonviolent learning games that work. Our lab, for example, has partnered with the CREATE Lab at New York University to game development using evidence-based theories. In one, All You Can ET, space creatures fall from the sky and you have to shoot food or drinks depending on the ever-changing rules. This trains “task switching,” or what some people call multitasking—an executive function skill associated with academic success.
We found ourselves playing All You Can ET in just two hours improved task-switching skills more than playing a word search game for the same amount of time. All You Can ET is available for free on the Google Play Store for Android and the Apple App Store (we do not receive any revenue from the game).
Several other laboratories have achieved similar successes. Neuroscientist Adam Ghazali and his team at the University of California, San Francisco, for example, created NeuroRacer: a multitasking car driving game that is featured on train attention control skills in older adults. Che technology was used by a development company EndeavorRx, aimed at helping children with attention deficit disorder. In 2020, it became the first video game approved for medical marketing by the FDAavailable by prescription.
Why do these games work while others don’t? Our games are designed with six principles: focus on a well-defined target skill, provide repeated practice, give immediate feedback, maintain increasing levels of challenge, provide different contexts to practice the skill, and ensure that play is enjoyable. With studies like these in hand, we can look forward to a future where researchers and developers collaborate to construct fun games that train specific cognitive skills. Then that hour of play a day will really make you smarter.
Manufactured by Knowable MagazineThis piece first appeared in Mercury News.
Richard E. Meyer is an educational psychologist at the University of California, Santa Barbara. This article originally appeared in Knowable Magazinean independent journalistic venture from Annual Reviews.