Will gaming unlock our brains?

| February 3, 2016

Videogames are much more than just mindless entertainment. Dr. Jenny Brockis explains how they can help boost cognitive function and even assist in the management of medical conditions.

Videogames are addictive, overly violent and reduce empathy and social skills.

True? Well, in some cases yes, but videogames can also enhance focus, visuo-spatial skills, decision-making and reasoning. While gaming remains a controversial topic, what is not in dispute is that playing videogames changes our brain; stimulating neurogenesis (the production of new neurons) and driving neuroplasticity (the formation of new synaptic connections between neurons).

This implies that videogames might have other applications far beyond entertainment.

Can videogames be developed to boost cognition?

Could videogames ever be prescribed as a digital medicine as an alternative to conventional treatments?

The answer to both of these questions is probably yes, and game designers and researchers are working hard to make this a reality. Back in 2013, Glass, Maddox and Love, using the videogame Starcraft, found that cognitive flexibility is a trainable skill.

Aren’t videogames just for kids?

No. The average age of a gamer is 31 years. Only 29% of gamers are under 18, with a greater percentage over 50! Their appeal is widespread, with almost equal numbers of men and women players, and show no sign of abating. How many people do you know who choose to use the time on the way to work to play Candy Crush or Farmville, or unwind in the evening with a session of Tour of Duty?

Videogames can hone skillsets.

It’s already been shown how videogames can hone focus and physical manipulative skills. Studies have shown how laparoscopic surgeons who play 6 minutes of MonkeyBall2 as a warm up prior to conducting the surgery make up to 37% fewer mistakes (that’s encouraging!), and work 25% faster, meaning less time for you under anaesthesia.

Elsewhere systematic video game training was shown to improve surgical performance and to be a better predictor of positive surgical outcomes rather than years of experience and number of surgeries performed.

Our future choice of laparoscopic or endoscopic surgeons may soon depend on gaming prowess rather than other more traditional variables!

Using games to boost cognition.

Pioneers such as neuroscientist Adam Gazzaley and others are leading the way, working on designing games to boost cognitive skills. In findings published as a letter in Nature 2013, a group of 60-80 year olds spending 12 hours a week playing Gazzaley’s Neuroracer improved their overall ability to focus attention, task switch and boost working memory with the improvement persisting over six months. Producing games that translate into better performance in life has been the Holy Grail for games developers.

From here Gazzaley is continuing his work with Ricky Hart, in the Rhythm and the Brain Project, where the goal is to improve cognition and mood in both healthy and impaired individuals and produce a positive impact in our lives.

Elsewhere companies such as the UK based MyCognition have been devising 3D videogames with the aim of producing cognitive benefit that is measurable using their MyCQ™ cognitive assessment tool.

As our work and lives become ever busier, honing our cognitive skills for the greater levels of mental flexibility and agility required to think well is becoming increasingly important.

With our understanding of the human brain continuing to increase exponentially, it appears videogames will play an increasingly important role to boost cognitive function and assist in the management of medical conditions including depression, ADHD, autism and dementia.

Meanwhile it’s a case of ‘watch this space.’

Citation: Glass BD, Maddox WT, Love BC (2013) Real-Time Strategy Game Training: Emergence of a Cognitive Flexibility Trait. PLoS ONE 8(8): e70350. doi:10.1371/journal.pone.0070350