If you spend more than an hour a day playing video games, that’s 5 percent of your life. Will this time investment do anything good for your brain?
This is a question that my colleagues and I at the University of California, Santa Barbara, have been studying for the past two decades. We want to know whether playing video games can increase cognitive skills: In other words, can game playing make you smarter? We have performed experiments, conducted meta-analyses of research literature, and even produced a couple of books: Computer Games for Learning and Handbook of Game-Based Learning.
The results have been surprising — with some bad news, good news, even better news, and some prospects for the future based on rigorous scientific research.
My team focuses on what I call cognitive consequences experiments. Our researchers take a group of people and give them a test that assesses some cognitive skills, like attention, perception, mental flexibility, spatial processing, reasoning, or memory. Then we split the group in half. One half plays a video game targeting that skill for two or more hours over many sessions; the other half engages in some other activity, like playing a word-search game. Then we give them all the same test again.
First, the bad news. A careful review of published scientific research shows that most off-the-shelf video games do not improve cognitive skills. This holds true for strategy games, adventure games, puzzle games, and many brain-training games.
Next, the good news. There appears to be one genre of commercial games that can improve cognitive skills — and it might surprise you. Playing action video games, including first-person shooter games, can continually exercise your perceptual attention with immediate feedback, under a variety of ever-changing contexts, and with increasing levels of challenge.
Finally, even better news. Some research groups are having success making nonviolent learning games that work. Our lab, for example, has partnered with the CREATE Lab at New York University to develop games using evidence-based theories. In one, All You Can ET, space creatures fall from the sky and you must shoot up food or drinks depending on ever-changing rules. This trains “task switching” or what some people call multitasking — an executive function skill associated with academic success.
We have found that playing All You Can ET for as little as two hours improved task-switching skills more than playing a word-search game for the same amount of time. All You Can ET is available for free on Google Play Store for Android and on the Apple App Store (we do not receive any income from the game).
A few other labs have seen similar successes. Neuroscientist Adam Gazzaley and his team at the University of California, San Francisco, for example, created NeuroRacer: a car-driving multitasking game that has been shown to train attention control skills in older adults. That technology was used by a company to develop EndeavorRx, targeted to help kids with attention deficits. In 2020, that became the first-ever video game approved for medical marketing by the FDA, available by prescription.
Why do these games work while others do not? Our games are designed with six principles: focus on a well-specified target skill, provide repeated practice, give immediate feedback, maintain increasing levels of challenge, provide varying contexts for exercising the skill, and make sure the game is enjoyable.
With studies like these in hand, we can look forward to a future when researchers and developers collaborate to construct fun games that train specific cognitive skills. Then that hour a day of play really will make you smarter.