Calling all avid gamers – video games may be more than just a bit of fun. New research published in Frontiers in Human Neuroscience suggests playing video games might actually make you better at cognitive tasks, even years after you stop playing.
The study from the Universitat Oberta de Catalunya (UOC) involved 27 people (ages 18-40) that had either played video games in their past or never touched them. Each participant was tested on their cognitive skills before being subject to 1.5 hours of playing a video game for 10 consecutive days, then immediately after the training period, and finally 15 days after gaming.
The game in question was the puzzle-busting Super Mario 64, one that has been shown to correlate with structural changes in the brain. One group was also subject to transcranial magnetic stimulation (TMS), a technique of non-invasive brain stimulation, to see if it could improve their gaming performance.
Participants from both groups improved their gaming performance – practice makes perfect, after all – but there was seemingly no enhanced effect as a result of the stimulation. The participants performed differently at working memory tasks before the game training but showed similar results after the 15 hours of gaming sessions.
Originally, the researchers set out to test whether a combination of video game training and non-invasive brain stimulation could be used to enhance cognition, but the results showed otherwise. So, they turned to other variables that may explain the differences in memory task scores. Age and gender were ruled out, leaving one variable – past gaming experience. The researchers discovered that the avid gamers during pre-adolescence performed markedly better at the working memory tasks than those that had never gamed before, and although video game training with Super Mario 64 evened the playing field, the benefits had clearly lasted years.
"People who were avid gamers before adolescence, despite no longer playing, performed better with the working memory tasks, which require mentally holding and manipulating information to get a result," said Marc Palaus, a UOC PhD researcher, in a statement.
"People who played regularly as children performed better from the outset in processing 3D objects, although these differences were mitigated after the period of training in video gaming, when both groups showed similar levels," added Palaus.
While video games appear to have a beneficial effect on some cognitive tasks, the researchers stressed that this effect is limited and may not apply to many scenarios outside of gaming. It's also possible that other activities besides gaming could achieve similar results.
As this study was designed for an alternative hypothesis, further research is needed before video games are marketed as a one-stop ticket to intelligence. The study's sample size was small and despite a starting difference in cognition, the participants needed just 15 hours of video game training before the playing field leveled, so avid gamers may not be as ahead as it seems at first.
Still, the researchers write that "despite not achieving the desired effects of the stimulation, our results, although exploratory, provide valuable information regarding the limitations of stimulating healthy brains and the possible beneficial effects of exposure to video games."