October 28, 2020

Researchers Scientifically Create Video Games To Benefit Cognitive Function

For those of us of a certain age, where you’re the right age to have grown up with video games as a staple of your youth entertainment experience while your parents basically grew up without them, the generational divide when it comes to gaming could not possibly be more stark. It is my belief that a great deal of the ongoing debate about whether there are harmful effects from playing video games is probably about to simply disappear as that parental generation begins to shove off this mortal experience. Gaming, after all, has been blamed for all sorts of things, even as research is starting to trickle in which suggests that video gaming in particular may have health benefits and is otherwise part of a healthy staple of entertainment experiences.

That research will only get better and more prevalent as both video games become a larger staple of entertainment consumption in our culture and as a younger generation of researchers with an interest in the topic come of age. One example of that can be seen in the work done by NYU professor Jan Plass, who’s team didn’t even both trying to tackle whether video games are good or bad for people, but instead took a scientific approach to simply create games that are designed to benefit cognitive behavior.

University professors from New York and California designed and developed three digital games – available online and in the iOS and Google Play app stores – to help its users’ brains work more efficiently. While some digital games falsely claim to improve cognitive skills, these three games have actually proven to. Evidenced through a series of research studies, these games can help users boost memory, inhibition, and cognitive flexibility.

“Can games actually have positive effects on players? We believe they can, and we designed three games to support learners in developing cognitive skills that researchers have identified as essential for success in daily life, executive functions,“ said Jan L. Plass, Paulette Goddard Professor of Digital Media and Learning Sciences at New York University’s Steinhardt School of Culture Education and Human Development and co-creator of the games.

Those executive functions are inhibitory control (attention span), working memory (cognitive processing), and cognitive flexibility (multi-tasking). Each game specifically works backwards from the goal of improving those functions and consists of tasks specifically meant to train the brain.

What does this show? Well, at a bare minimum it demonstrates that the effect a game has on a person has nothing to do with the medium itself and has everything to do with the construction of the game and what it is designed to achieve. This isn’t terribly nuanced and likely seems obvious to most of us, but it is certainly a refutation of the trope that “video games are bad” that far too many people still have. Games aren’t bad. Games are games. Just as there is good television and books, as well as “bad” or empty calorie television and books, so too is it with video games.

And, to be clear, the science indicates that these games work.

In addition to developing the games, Plass, Homer and Mayer published eight research articles reporting on the effectiveness of these games.

“We found replicated evidence across multiple experiments that playing our games for two hours causes improvements in executive function skills as compared to a control group that plays an unrelated game,” said Mayer. “This is one of the few scientific experiments showing the benefits of game-based training on executive function skills such as being able to shift from one task to another or being able to keep track of a series of events. This work shows the benefits of designing games based on the cognitive theory of game-based training.”

Whatever is true about video games, it sure isn’t that they are “bad”, full stop. Instead, there are different kinds of games that create different kinds of cognitive effects. If we could all approach the topic with that as the baseline from now on, the conversations we have will be far more productive.
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