Shall We Play a Game?

Jonathan Strickland

Sure, you can build a mighty fine virtual moon base, but do those skills translate to the real world? | Image courtesy of NASA

We've known for a few years that video games can affect our brains -- check out this press release of a study from 2007 that suggests surgeons could benefit from playing games. But most of the studies in video games and brain behavior focus either on lower brain functions or whether or not games make us more violent. Now we've got a study that suggests certain games can help us with higher brain cognition.

The study looked at the effects of complex real-time strategy (RTS) games. These games require the player to manage multiple resources while simultaneously pursuing specific goals. For example, a player might need to build structures that create or enhance military units in an effort to destroy an enemy base while simultaneously protecting their own resources from enemy attack.

Researchers looked to see if RTS games have an impact on a gamer's higher-level cognitive skills. In the words of the report, it was to see if games went beyond pumping up "fast perception" and actually pushed "fast thinking." According to the report, that's exactly what happens -- gamers who get really good at playing RTS games tend to experience an improvement in "cognitive flexibility."

According to the report, cognitive flexibility is "a core aspect of cognition that involves the coordination of cognitive resources in both lower-level perceptual switching and higher-level rule switching, and has been associated with fluid intelligence and overall psychological well-being." That includes everything from recognizing changing situations and understanding their significance to being able to think in an abstract and flexible way.

The study took subjects from the University of Texas in Austin and had them play StarCraft. All the subjects were female (the team couldn't find any males who hadn't already racked up too many hours of video game play). First, the subjects took a pre-experiment battery of tests to determine their cognitive flexibility. The team divided the subjects into three groups, including a group that played The Sims for seven weeks while the others played StarCraft.

The results? The StarCraft players showed an improvement in cognitive flexibility compared to the control group during a series of post-experimental tests. Does this mean you'll get smarter if you play video games? Not necessarily. The study suggests that playing these games might make you better at handling specific mental tasks but it doesn't mean you should just chuck all your books out the door and focus on your counter Zerg rush strategy. Other cognitive abilities didn't seem to get a boost.

While video games aren't a substitute for textbooks, studies like this one do seem to support the idea that gamifying education could help students develop useful skills. Who knows? Maybe in a decade or two your local school's valedictorian will be whoever manages to get the high score on the latest incarnation of Pac-Man.