The Surprising Cognitive Benefits of Video Games
Updated: Sep 14
Tuesday, Sept. 12th is National Video Games Day! Anyone who has seen my plastic Super Mario Bros. diorama at my desk can guess I’m a retro-gamer from back in the original Nintendo era, so I decided to do a blog post to talk about gaming.
"Some people say video games rot your brain, but I think they work different muscles that maybe you don't normally use." - Ezra Koenig
Most parents I know (both millennial parents my age, up to and including my own parents) consider video games something of a necessary evil. At best, games are a way to mollify screaming children, or keep teenagers off the streets, while allowing mom & dad to enjoy a few moments of precious silence. At worst the Tipper Gore’s of the world believe video games will rot kids’ brains and be solely responsible for the downfall of western civilization.
In the 30 years since the former Second Lady complained about Mortal Kombat to Congress scientists have actually been studying video games, and found all sorts of benefits, many of which overlap with skills we work on in Vision Therapy! It’s pretty straight forward hypothesis that video games might be linked to improving reaction time, or manual dexterity, but what else could it possibly help with?
"Games are transforming the brains of people who play them in largely positive ways." – Jane McGonigal
What Else Video Games Help With (and the Studies to Back it Up)
Lots of patients come to VCDC wanting to improve their visual-spatial processing. This could be adult patients who just can not parallel park, teenagers who are struggling to understand graphs in trigonometry, or younger patients who were told it was an area of concern from a neuropsych exam. This cognitive ability helps to mentally manipulate and navigate objects and their relationships in space; necessary to understand maps, visualize molecules in organic chemistry, and engineer 3D printable products. Turns out, a 2010 study(1) of games improving technical skills in medicine found a VR Tetris game help surgeons improve their skills, while the Nintendo Wii-U game Underground was shown to improve spatial awareness and fine motor control in laparoscopic surgeons.
A 2020 study(2) showed that immersive 3D video games improved hippocampal-based memory in young adults. The hippocampus is the area of the brain responsible for regulating learning, memory encoding, memory consolidation, and spatial navigation. Super Mario 3D World was compared to Angry Birds and computer-based Solitaire. After 4 weeks of 30 minutes of gaming a day, only the Super Mario players showed improvement on memory tasks. And those improvements persisted for up to 4 weeks after the subjects stopped gaming. Playing action-based games has been linked to improve attentional processing as well as long-lasting improvements in contrast-sensitivity according to a 2009 study(3). superior spatial cognition skills(4).
"Video games are bad for you? That's what they said about rock-n-roll." – Shigeru Miyamoto
First-person-shooter games like the cartoony Team Fortress 2, the sci-fi Halo series, or the war-based Call of Duty series, have been correlated with a 30 to 50 percent increase in peripheral awareness, subitizing (instantly recognizing the amount of objects without counting them), and tracking multiple objects in a 2013 study(5). The doctor in charge of the study found improvements after only 10 hours of gameplay. Furthermore, these enhancements have also been seen in higher-order executive control functions such as task switching, working memory, inhibition and reduced attentional capture(6). Playing various match 3, hidden picture, and tile flipping games all showed improvements in visual search response times and accuracy.
Author and game developer Jane McGonigal suffered a debilitating concussion, leading her to create the social game Jane the Concussion Slayer, later renamed SuperBetter. After playing SuperBetter for 3-6 weeks in conjunction with medical care, teens 13-18 had significantly greater reductions in concussion symptoms and increases in optimism compared to patients receiving standard medical care(7).
There’s also links between action games and increased gray matter(8), rpg and strategy games linked to improved problem solving(9).
And all this doesn’t even touch on how video games can engage with things like interactive storytelling, and gaming overall shows improvements with mental health by reducing anxiety, emotional regulation, sense of personal growth and internal locus of control, social-emotional well-being(10).
“Life is a lot like a video game. You control what happens.” – Michael L. Ceorgoveanu
So Which Games are the Good Ones?
Obviously, any of the games listed in the studies above would be good to work on the skills listed in their studies, but sometimes you just want a list to be able to refer to. While in no way comprehensive, and maybe showing a bias for my love of puzzle-games, here’s my list of games that I like for specific vision therapy skills. It should go without saying that age restrictions should be a factor if you are considering playing these games with your children.
Receptive/Expressive Communication Skills
2D Visual-Spatial Skills
3D Visual-Spatial Skills
Professor Layton (any of them, it’s a whole series)
Dance Dance Revolution
Rock Band/ Guitar Hero
Wario Ware (any of them, it’s a series)