Your kids may be right: playing video games may not be a waste of time but may help learning and memory function.
A new study out of Germany says that gaming helps cognitive learning and problem solving. In order to investigate memory formation and sensory processing, researchers at Ruhr University Bochum’s Institute for Cognitive Neuroscience pitted video gamers against non-gamers in a learning competition. “The video gamers performed significantly better and showed an increased brain activity in the brain areas that are relevant for learning,” according to the study. Sabrina Schenk and Dr. Boris Suchan led the team, who used 3T Magnetic Resonance Imaging (MRI) to examine 34 subjects’ brains as they performed a weather predication task using cue cards.
Schenk and Suchan explained, “The participants were shown a combination of three cue cards with different symbols. They should estimate whether the card combination predicted sun or rain and got a feedback if their choice was right or wrong right away. The volunteers gradually learned, on the basis of the feedback, which card combination stands for which weather prediction. The combinations were thereby linked to higher or lower probabilities for sun and rain. After completing the task, the study participants filled out a questionnaire to sample their acquired knowledge about the cue card combinations.”
The MRI imaging showed brain activation in the hippocampus (the area connected to memory and learning), the occipital visual areas, and in areas related to attentional processes. “Our study shows that gamers are better in analyzing a situation quickly, to generate new knowledge and to categorize facts – especially in situations with high uncertainties,” said Schenk. (And the researchers questioned if video game playing couldn’t help older adults who need memory improvement.)
Before you and your kids celebrate the benefits of video games too much, you should take note of another study, published in August in Nature and Molecular Psychiatry, that states that action video game players may actually reduce grey matter in the hippocampus (which would negatively affect memory). Gregory West, of the University of Montreal and lead researcher on this study, said in an interview with Parent.co, “There are many different types of video games that we now know can have a differential impact on the brain. Our research specifically examined only two types of video games: first person shooting/action RPG shooting games and 3D-platform games….We showed a causal relationship between playing these games and changes in grey matter within the hippocampal memory system.”
West and his colleagues have studied video games for a number of years. He said originally he was interested in the positive cognitive affects of action video games, particularly on visual attention, motor control, and the brain’s reward system. Then, starting in 2015, they found evidence that linked action video game consumption to negative effects on memory (because of hippocampus grey matter reduction), so they started analyzing what types of video games caused what types of effects.
“3D-platform games, such as Super Mario 64, promote the hippocampal memory system,” West said. Logic and puzzle games do, too. West recommends parents limit young children’s game playing to these types of games because he says there is no research examining how action video games impact developing hippocampus. (The University of California, San Diego Cognitive Science Department says the hippocampus continues its physical development into the first two and a half years of life.)
One of the questions West has about the German study and its results is that the researchers seem to “lump together games that ask players to perform very different tasks into one category of ‘action video games’.” he said, “For example, StarCraft is highlighted as an example of a type of video game their participants often played. However, StarCraft is, in fact, a real-time strategy game that has very different content compared to a first person shooting game. Because of this, it is difficult to determine what type of gameplay experience is responsible for their observed results.” (Dr. Suchan did not respond to our inquiry about this.)
One thing that all researchers and gamers can agree on is that playing video games affects our lives, our abilities, and our brains in a variety of ways. Therefore, with some parental oversight, let the games begin.