Studies have shown: Games can be good for the brain. Jigsaw, crosswords, and number puzzles have been found to improve cognitive function in older adults. Meanwhile, some studies have shown that board games, chess, checkers and analog games appear to help enhance the brain’s processing speed and memory.
The digital era has brought a new world of games: console games, mobile phone video games, fitness-related exergames, even virtual reality games. Could these have brain health benefits too? New research is exploring how some genres and types of video gaming — in moderation — may actually confer a wide variety of health benefits, especially for the brain.
What does science say about video gaming and brain health?
In 2015, a joint study of the Macquarie University in Sydney and the University of Electronic Science and Technology of China revealed structural and functional reinforcements in the gamers’ brain using functional MRI. The researchers found that playing action video games is associated with increased volume of gray matter in the brain and strengthened networking within the brain, which is linked with hand-eye motor coordination, multisensory temporal processing abilities, memory encoding and retrieval, and other higher-order functions such as problem-solving and decision making.
Structural enhancement aside, playing video games can be related to one’s mental state, as shown by another study conducted at Oxford University. “Our findings show video games aren’t necessarily bad for your health; there are other psychological factors which have a significant effect on a person’s well-being,” lead author Andrew Przybylski, director of research at Oxford Internet Institute of University of Oxford, said in a news release. “In fact, play can be an activity that relates positively to people’s mental health – and regulating video games could withhold those benefits from players.”
Przybylski’s team explored the link between game time and personal well-being, and surprisingly found that the actual amount of time spent playing is a relatively small factor in improving one’s well-being. What matters most may be the subjective experience of the players, who are motivated during play to feel subjective changes in their well-being.
According to the study, players who genuinely enjoyed and satisfied the gameplay revealed a greater mental well-being, whereas the extrinsic motivations, such as feeling pressured to play, did the opposite.
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A 2020 article published in Journal of Medical Internal Research analyzed a number of different games, including “Minecraft,” “Animal Crossing: New Horizons,” “Mario Kart,” “Candy Crush,” “Angry Birds,” a number of Nintendo Wii exergames and others, all of which demonstrated potential mitigating effects on mood disorders such as depression and anxiety.
Strategy-focused Video Games
A 2018 systematic review performed by scientists from the University of Milano-Bicocca in Italy also found that strategy games such as Starcraft II and action video games such as Call of Duty and Half Life 2 are correlated with improved cognitive and emotional skills. While the researchers have yet to find a causal relationship, certain training outcomes have been identified, such as participants’ processing speed, memory, task-switching, and mental spatial rotation. Additionally, they found that video games, intrinsically being motivational, engaging, and readily accessible, helps individuals’ emotional regulation.
Immersive Video Games
Neuroscape and Weill Institute for Neurosciences at the University of California San Francisco recently developed and studied a virtual reality (VR) spatial wayfinding game, “Labyrinth-VR,” which combines physical exercise with cognitive challenges to achieve environmental enrichment via exposure to and learning about novel and complex information. These interactive, engaging and adaptive wayfinding challenges incorporate simple but multi-sensory games that require the player to complete a short yet intense task.
VR games train players’ flexibility and their ability to perform divided attention (ie, quickly shifting attention from one task to another). In hope of training one’s cognitive skills, including memory, problem-solving, spatial orientation and motor control, Labyrinth-VR has already ascertained some health benefits in their study.
“Those improvements brought them back up to the level of another group of younger adults who did the same memory tests,” Peter Wais, a cognitive neuroscientist of the University of California, San Francisco, told Scientific American.
This proof-of-concept study demonstrated that healthy older adults who have engaged in Labyrinth-VR had a cognitive performance equivalent to the level of younger counterparts, although some other abilities such as autobiographical memory and spatial memory capability did not show improvement.
In fact, not only is virtual reality a gaming or training tool for players at home, but it also turns into a clinical tool in the healthcare space. It has now been used by doctors and mental healthcare professionals to heal trauma and post-traumatic stress disorder, helping patients confront fears in the virtual world.