The new science revealing how video games could make you smarter

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Video games have been accused of many things over the years. There have been concerns that they make us isolated and antisocial, and in turn damage our mental wellbeing. We have worried that some games make us more violent, therefore damaging our physical wellbeing (literally).

As scientists have become more adept at researching these topics, the best evidence has started to reveal that these sorts of worries are largely unfounded.

Nevertheless, there persists a deep-seated idea that playing them rots your brain – it’s easy to view them as an unproductive waste of time which displace other, more meaningful pursuits. But in reality, is the opposite the case? Could video games make us smarter?

For years, ‘brain-training’ games and apps have been touted as an easy and effective way to boost our cognitive abilities. The idea behind them is that by playing a series of quickfire puzzles that focus on things like memory or spatial awareness, over time our abilities in these areas will improve – and in theory, so will our general intelligence.

From a research perspective, the key issue has been in figuring out whether playing these sorts of games results in ‘transfer’ effects – namely, whether improving your skills on a given memory game brings about cognitive improvements more broadly.

More specifically, scientists have tried to make a distinction between ‘near’ and ‘far’ transfer effects: near effects relate to whether playing one memory game results in improvements in other memory games, whereas far effects relate to whether playing that game results in a general improvement in cognitive abilities or intelligence.

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While some studies have shown that brain-training games result in near effects, these are generally weak, and other studies fail to find that same result. And as for far effects, there’s no convincing evidence this happens.

However, one line of enquiry has compared brain-training games to run-of-the-mill video games, and this is where things get interesting. In a 2015 study comparing the brain-training game Lumosity with the first-person puzzle game Portal 2, researchers found that Lumosity players didn’t show boosts in problem-solving and spatial skills, but Portal 2 players did.

Along similar lines, a study of nearly 45,000 participants published in 2019 showed that while there were small cognitive benefits of playing brain-training games, these were negligible in comparison to the effects of video games in general.

A mario kart game played inside a brain

© Sam Brewster

More recently, in 2020, researchers based at the Karolinska Institutet in Sweden looked at data from some 9,000 American children and found that kids aged 9 or 10 who played video games for above-average amounts of time didn’t show any differences in intelligence compared with those who played less.

The study caught up with 5,000 of those children two years later and discovered that by the age of 12, the kids who played video games had 2.5 more IQ points than average.

Elsewhere, studies in older populations have suggested that there are similar benefits. For example, a 2020 study of adults aged 60 to 80 showed that playing games like Angry Birds or Super Mario 3D World resulted in memory improvements over a four-week timespan.

Why off-the-shelf video games result in improvements in cognitive abilities over and above more targeted games isn’t clear, and scientists are still trying to understand why this might be the case.

One argument is to do with the amount of time invested: whereas brain-training apps tend to deliver mini-games over a short timespan, video games are immersive and often require sustained levels of attention and problem-solving.

Moreover, despite some promising findings, the scientific jury is still very much out as to whether there is currently enough convincing evidence to back up the claim that video games make us smarter.

In the meantime, perhaps we can leave behind those outdated concerns that tell us that video games are debilitating or maladaptive.

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