Oct 25 2022

Video Games May Improve Cognitive Function

Published by under Education
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At a recent talk, during the Q&A an audience member asked me what I thought the consequences would be of the “idiocracy” we seem to be heading toward. I challenged the premise, that people in general are becoming less intelligent. I know it may superficially seem like this, but that has more to do with media savvy, echochambers, tribalism, and radicalization, not any demonstrable decline in raw intelligence.

In fact, I pointed out, in the last century there has been a consistent increase in IQ testing ability, by about 3 IQ points per decade (called the Flynn Effect). There is still debate about what this means, and it is important to point out that IQ testing does not equal “intelligence” which is multifaceted. But whatever standard IQ tests are measuring, performance is generally improving over time. Another measure, that of civic scientific literacy (in a longstanding series of studies by Jon Miller), increased from 1988 t0 2008 from 9% to 29%. It has since plateaued at that level.

There is no consensus as to why this is so, but I have some thoughts based on the literature. Technology is exposing people to more information, and this has only been increasing further with the advent of computers, the internet, and even social media. Regardless of any negative effects, people seem to know more stuff, and have improved problem-solving skills. Our brains are busier, they are exposed to more ideas and facts, we interact with a greater number of different people and opinions, and we have to interface with technology and information more. The workforce is shifting from manual labor to more intellectual labor. Even just going through your normal day likely involves interacting with technology that would have befuddled older generations.

I have one very narrow example from my own profession that I find interesting, because again it goes against conventional wisdom. I was told that older generations of neurologists had to be expert in their exam skills and the ability to localize and diagnose from just the history and exam, because they were not able to rely upon fancy diagnostic tests like MRI scans. However, the opposite is true. Pre-imaging neurologists almost never (short of autopsy) found out if their localization was correct. They could pontificate all they wanted, without fear of being contradicted by a scan. Modern neurologists still have to examine, localize, and diagnose patients, but then they get rapid feedback on whether or not they were correct. I tell my residents – play this game. Make your own determination before looking at the MRI or CT scan, and you will get very good at localization very quickly.

The analogy to a game, I think, is very apt, and brings me to the news item this post is based on. A new study looks at two cohorts of children, those who play no video games, and those who play at least 21 hours of video games per week. They tracked their ability to complete cognitive tasks, and their functional brain wiring on fMRI. They found:

In this study, compared with NVGs, VGs were found to exhibit better cognitive performance involving response inhibition and working memory as well as altered BOLD signal in key regions of the cortex responsible for visual, attention, and memory processing. The findings are consistent with videogaming improving cognitive abilities that involve response inhibition and working memory and altering their underlying cortical pathways.

They controlled for confounding factors as much as possible, but of course this is a correlational study only. It’s possible, for example, that children who like playing video games do so because they have the cognitive ability to enjoy them, while other children may find them frustrating. Again, the authors tried to control for this, but we need to see further studies to confirm an actual effect here. In the above paragraph NVG were non-video gamer, and VG were video gamers. BOLD is a measure of oxygen uptake, a marker for brain metabolism. Basically, children who were VGs performed better on response inhibition and working memory and showed changes to brain wiring that might explain those differences.

I know I am retrofitting here, but as a videogamer myself, this makes sense. A lot of video-game play involves response inhibition – shoot the bad guys, but not the good guys, for example. Some games are built almost entirely on response inhibition, like Fruit Ninja (slice the fruit as they pop up, but not the bombs). One of the core principles of neuroscience is that the brain gets better at any task that it does. Working memory is a little more general, but can also be made to make sense. Video games are often designed to be cognitively challenging, and as you improve the tasks get harder. It’s actually a great learning mechanism. Depending on the task, working memory (keeping bits of information in mind and manipulating them) can be crucial.

There is other evidence supporting the effectiveness of video games on learning and cognitive function, but still this is an area that could benefit from more research. At the very least, the fears of many parents that video games are “rotting the minds” of their children is not supported by the evidence. Video game addiction and lack of physical activity are other issues. As is usually the case, everything in moderation. But playing video games as a major pass-time may have net cognitive benefits.

Finally, I have long felt that the video-game format is massively underleveraged as a general teaching tool. I remember in high school (yeah, a long time ago) I played a few science-based video games designed to teach things like chemical nomenclature. I thought then that they were incredibly effective teaching tools, and I am kind of shocked that 40 years later there is not much penetration of video games into schooling. I bought all the educational video games for my kids, and they were great. They taught reading, numbers, colors, matching, etc. in fun kid-themed games, and my kids loved them. But when they hit school, video games stopped being a mechanism of learning. I think it’s a missed opportunity. My guess is that there simply isn’t a big market for such games, and the educational industry does not recognize their potential so there isn’t a huge demand.

During the pandemic, math scores dropped across the board. Math is particularly well suited to a video game format, because it is very operational. I would bet that a well-designed video game would be better overall at teaching math at K-12 levels than a human. Video games are individualized in that they go at the pace of the student, only advancing to the next concept when the user has demonstrated mastery over the current one. They can also be optimized in terms of maximizing learning – returning to old concepts to reinforce them, and show how they are incorporated into later math skills. Skills would build like they do in a video game. Human intervention would only be necessary if a student became stuck or was not using the game.

I am not the only one to think this – mathematician Kieth Devlin has formed a company to make math-teaching video games, which he thinks are the perfect tool for teaching math. So I know there are good products out there. But they are not fully fleshed out, and they are not a standard part of the learning curriculum. If they were I suspect we would not have seen the drop in scores from students being at home during the pandemic.

The bottom line is that video games can be an extremely effective learning tool. Even when just playing games for fun, they may improve aspects of cognitive function.

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