Depends. New research highlights six key principles for better learning.
If you spend more than an hour a day playing video games, that time represents 5% of your life. Does this investment of time produce anything useful for the brain? This is a question that researchers at the University of California, Santa Barbara have studied and delved into over the past two decades. The researchers wanted to understand whether playing video games could increase cognitive abilities: in other words, can video games make you smarter? For this they have performed experiments, conducted meta-analysis of the literature and even produced a couple of books: Computer Games for Learning and Handbook of Game-Based Learning. The results were startling, with some bad news, good news, even better news, and some future prospects based on rigorous scientific research. The team focused on what are called experiments on cognitive consequences. They took a group of people and gave them a test that evaluates certain cognitive skills, such as attention, perception, mental flexibility, spatial processing, reasoning or memory. Then they split the group in half. Half played a video game that has the goal of using those skills to use for two or more hours in different sessions; the other half engaged in another activity, such as a word search game. Then, they subjected everyone to the same test again.
Good and bad news
Bad news first. A careful review of published scientific research shows that most standard video games do not improve cognitive abilities. This applies to strategy games, adventure games, puzzle games, and many brain training games.
Then, the good news. There seems to be a genre of commercial games that can improve cognitive skills and it might surprise you. Action video games , including shooters in primis, can continuously exercise perceptive attention with immediate feedback, in a variety of ever-changing contexts and with increasing levels of challenge.
Finally, even better news. Some research groups are making nonviolent learning games that work. Researchers at the University of California, for example, have collaborated with the CREATE Lab at New York University to develop games that use evidence-based theories. In one of them, All You Can ET , space creatures fall from the sky and you have to shoot food or drink according to ever-changing rules. This trains “task switching” or what some call multitasking , an executive function skill associated with academic success.
We found that playing All You Can ET for just two hours improved task alternation skills more than logging into a word search game, for the same amount of time. (PS All You Can ET is available for free on the Google Play Store for Android and on the Apple App Store)
A few other labs have had similar successes. Neuroscientist Adam Gazzaley and his team at the University of California, San Francisco, for example, have created NeuroRacer: a multitasking car-driving game that has been shown to train attention span skills in older adults. This technology was used by a company to develop EndeavorRx, aimed at helping children with attention deficits. In 2020, it became the first video game ever approved by the FDA for medical marketing, available by prescription.
“Why do these games work and others don’t? These are designed around six principles: focus on a well-specified target skill, provide repeated practice, give immediate feedback, maintain increasing levels of challenge, provide different contexts for practicing the skill, and make sure the game is enjoyable. ” says one of the researchers. With studies like these, we can hope for a future where researchers and developers collaborate to build fun games that train specific cognitive skills. Then that hour of play a day will actually make you smarter.