Contrary to what a lot of unfounded claims on the Internet may suggest, playing video games can actually be beneficial for you, at least in terms of the development of your brain. Previous studies have shown that they seem capable of improving your hand-eye coordination, perception, reaction time, attention span, and ability to mentally image and process 3D shapes. Now, a new study published in the Journal of Neuroscience adds another benefit to this list: They help to boost the formation of memories.
Video games have come a long way since their inception. Today, they are often sprawling epics with Hollywood-beating soundtracks, world-building on the scale of "Star Wars" and sometimes near-photorealistic 3D environments to navigate through. In fact, it is this 3D aspect of contemporary video games that intrigued Craig Stark and Dane Clemenson of the University of California, Irvine’s Center for the Neurobiology of Learning and Memory.
"First, the 3D games have a few things the 2D ones do not," Stark said in a statement. "They've got a lot more spatial information in there to explore. Second, they're much more complex, with a lot more information to learn."
For their study, they were interested in the effect of video games on the hippocampus, the region of the brain that is associated with the formation of memories; specifically, it is responsible for consolidating short-term memories into long-term ones. In order to investigate this effect, college students were asked to play one of two games for 30 minutes per day over the course of two weeks. Thirty-nine of the participants were self-described regular gamers, and 29 were non-gamers.
The was the well-known mobile game "Angry Birds," which involves a passive 2D landscape that the players cannot wander through. The second game was "Super Mario 3D World," a Wii video game that players can, unsurprisingly, move around in a 3D landscape. A control group – those who did not play any games throughout – were included.
Before and after the two-week-long video gaming session, the students were asked to take memory tests that are known to directly engage their hippocampi. In the first, they were given a series of photographs of everyday objects to study. After a short time interval, they were shown the same objects again, interspersed with images of other objects, and altered images of the original objects.
The participants were requested to correctly ascertain which objects belonged to which of the three categories. In the second test, dots and lines flashed up on a screen, and the students were asked to correctly recall how many appeared shortly afterwards.
The researchers found that there was no improvement in memory recall when it came to the 2D gaming group. In terms of the dot and line test, the 3D group didn’t show any improvement either, but when it came to the object identification test, the 3D group of gamers showed a 12 percent average score increase. This is roughly the amount that an average person’s memory recall ability decreases between the ages of 45 and 70.
The study, which is admittedly relatively small, suggests that interactive 3D environments do seem to improve memory recall in only two weeks. Although the authors aren’t yet clear what particular aspect of the 3D games – their inherent complexity or their spatial exploration – are stimulating the hippocampus, this will be their next investigative focus.