Are Videogames Good Or Bad For Your Brain? It Depends Who YOU Are

You may be thinking about innovative ways to maintain your brain in top shape in 2009. Two recent scientific studies published by Dr. Arthur Kramer and colleagues suggest an intriguing possibility: playing strategy videogames. Especially if you are 60-years-old or over.

The two studies are:

1) Basak C, et al “Can training in a real-time strategy video game attenuate cognitive decline in older adults?” Psychol Aging 2008; DOI: 10.1037/a0013494.

2) Boot, W. R., Kramer, A. F., Simons, D. J., Fabiani, M. & Gratton, G. (2008) The effects of video game playing on attention, memory, and executive control. Acta Psychologica, 129, 387-398.

Let’s first review the first study, a landmark experiment in that it showed wide and significant cognitive benefits in adults over 60 years old who played a strategy videogame (Rise of Nations) for 23 hours.

A team at the University of Illinois recruited 40 adults over 60 years old, half of whom were asked to play a computer game called Rise of Nations, a role-playing game in which you have to build your own empire: game players have to build cities, feed and employ their people, maintain an adequate military and expand their territory.

Both the experiment and the control groups were assessed before, during and after the video game training on a variety of tests, and the “gamers” became significantly better – and faster – at switching between tasks as compared to the comparison group. Their working memory, as reflected in the tests, was also significantly improved and their reasoning ability was enhanced.

Really remarkable results.

The second study, in contrast, found no comparable cognitive benefits for college students in their early 20s who played the same game for the same number of hours, regardless of whether they play videogames often or don’t. How come this contrast?

In order to better understand this, I contacted Dr. Arthur Kramer, one of the scientists involved in both studies, to ask a few questions.

Question: What may, in your view, explain the different effect of the videogame Rise of Nations on non-gamers, contrasting both studies?

Answer: Certainly one of the most notable between our two studies was the age of the study participants – with young adults serving as subjects in the Acta Psychologica paper and older adults serving as subjects in the Psychology & Aging study. We observed training benefits for the older but not for the younger adults. There are several reasons why this might have been the case. First, older adults perform more poorly on the target abilities that we were trying to train – that is executive control processes – than younger adults. So it might be the case that video game training benefits are more readily observed for cognitive processes that are somewhat degraded. Second, while it is quite easy to find older adults who have never played video games (and especially strategy-based games like Rise Of Nations) it is very difficult to find completely naïve younger adults (although the younger adults subjects in our study did play video games less than 1 hour per week). So it is conceivable that video game training based gains might be more readily observed the less experience that someone has with video games. These seem to be the most likely reasons for the different effects in the two studies.

Question: What is the main implication from both studies combined/ what do we know today that we didn’t know 3 months ago?

Answer: First, I think that our results suggest promise with regard to video game playing and older adults cognition. However, given, to my knowledge, this is the first attempt to improve executive control abilities of older adults via strategy-based video game playing certainly additional studies should be conducted to further explore this relationship, particularly with real-world tasks as transfer tasks. Second, the results of our study with younger adults suggest that caution is in order with regard to assuming that video game training will enhancing, perceptual, attentional and cognitive abilities of young people. Clearly, there are important boundary conditions of such relationships that we don’t yet know.

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