The Jury Is out. Gaming Does Make You Smarter

Gaming does seem to make you smarter, at least if it does not replace other learning but is added to it. Why? Gaming has shown to improve working memory, an important predictor of academic success.

Working memory is like the Chief Executive of your brain; it assesses situations, makes quick decisions and executes them. The more information can be held in working memory, via attention, effective encoding and organisation the better it functions. People with a good working memory tend to have more accurate and faster cognitive functions, also interpreted as a higher IQ and hence may score better in exams and do better in life in general.

Given how gaming has become part of nearly every young person’s life, there are plenty of studies that have researched or are researching the effect of playing video games on various brain functions. One of the biggest, ongoing, studies for adolescent cognitive development is the American ABCD research project, the Adolescent Brain Cognitive Development Study, which has created a wealth of data on brain development in young people from about 9-10 years old and how that plays out in later, adolescent, years. The ABCD study is an open-source study, releasing sets of anonymised data on request.

Researchers at the University of Vermont, the Karolinska Institutet in Sweden and the Vrije Universiteit of Amsterdam each extracted subsets of data from this study and analysed it to determine the effect on video games on the adolescent brain. The University of Vermont selected a group of 2,000 children out of the larger ABCD study and split them into 2 groups: the first group was asked not to play any video games at all and the second group to play video games for 3 hours or more every day. The 9-and-10-year-olds were tested on cognitive skills, such as impulse control and memorisation of information before and after the experiment and neuroimaging was used to see brain activity of both groups and – eliminating other variables – the study found that the group playing video games had better impulse control and working memory and showed increased brain activity in those regions of the brain associated with memory and attention.

A very similar study by the Karolinska Institutet and the VU Amsterdam, using the data of a group of 5,000 9-to-10-year-olds from the same ABCD study, asked the parents of the research group to allow their children a total of 2.5 hours daily of engagement with TV, social media and videogames and to take notes on how much time was spent by the children on each medium. This study lasted for a for a period of 2 years. Participants were tested for cognitive abilities on a range of tests before the start of the experiment and after the 2 years. Adjusting for genetic differences in IQ, parental education and background, they found that participants who had spent most of the daily permitted 2.5 hours on video games, scored much better on the same tests than 2 years prior and showed a difference in IQ with children who spent much less time on video games of about 2.5 IQ points. No cognitive enhancement was found in children who watched tv or used social media in that same time slot.

Intuitively, this seems right as social media and tv are passive pursuits, whilst gaming involves players, who need to hone their skills – aka learn – to literally stay ‘in the game’.

Playing video games – say those in favour – allows players to solve problems, devise strategies, work in teams and be quick to act when surprises occur. Of course, not all video games help this rather constructive process, but some of the very popular games like Fortnite or Clash of Clans certainly fit the bill as do many of the games designed on Roblox.

Despite using different types of measuring, the various studies demonstrate that video gaming can benefit and enhance brain functions and make new neural connections. These benefits can be extrapolated to older age groups too and will also help motor skills and focus.

So, those players who manage to find the time to play video games besides study & revision and physical exercise (given video games are considered as relaxing), may very well beat their non-playing peers in memory and the ability to focus.

Links & references: