Two recent scientific studies published by Dr. Arthur Kramer and colleagues present fascinating results. The two studies are:
1) Basak C, et al “Can training in a real-time strategy video game attenuate cognitive decline in older adults?” Psychol Aging 2008; DOI: 10.1037/a0013494.
2) Boot, W. R., Kramer, A. F., Simons, D. J., Fabiani, M. & Gratton, G. (2008) The effects of video game playing on attention, memory, and executive control. Acta Psychologica, 129, 387–398.
Let’s first review the first study, a significant experiment in that it showed wide cognitive benefits in adults over 60 years old who played a strategy videogame (Rise of Nations) for 23 hours.
- The team at the University of Illinois recruited 40 adults over 60 years old, half of whom were asked to play a computer game called Rise of Nations, a role-playing game in which you have to build your own empire.
- Game players have to build cities, feed and employ their people, maintain an adequate military and expand their territory.
- Both groups were assessed before, during and after the video game training on a variety of tests.
- As a group, the “gamers” became significantly better and faster at switching between tasks as compared to the comparison group. Their working memory, as reflected in the tests, was also significantly improved and their reasoning ability was enhanced.
Really remarkable results.
The second study, in contrast, found no comparable cognitive benefits for college students in their early 20s who played the same game for the same number of hours, regardless of whether they play videogames often or don’t.
How come this contrast?
In order to better understand this, we contacted Arthur Kramer and asked him to elaborate on what he told us in our first interview. Let’s first review what we discussed in June:
Question (me): Tell us more about your work with cognitive training for older adults.
Answer (Prof Kramer): We have now a study in press where we evaluate the effect of a commercially available strategy videogame on older adults cognition.
Let me first give some context. It seems clear that, as we age, our so-called crystallized abilities remain pretty stable, whereas the so-called fluid abilities decline. One particular set of fluid abilities are called executive functions, which deal with executive control, planning, dealing with ambiguity, prioritizing, multi-tasking. These skills are crucial to maintain independent living.
In this study, we examined whether playing strategy-based video game can train those executive functions and improve them. We showed that playing a strategy-based videogame (Rise of Nations Gold Edition) can result in not only becoming a better videogame player but it transferred to untrained executive functions. We saw a significant improvement in task switching, working memory, visual short-term memory, and mental rotation. And some, but more limited, benefits in inhibition and reasoning.
I can share a few details on the study: the average age was 69 years, and the experiment required around 23 hours of training time. We only included individuals who had played videogames 0 hours/ week for the last 2 years.
That last criteria is interesting. We typically say that good “brain exercise” requires novelty, variety and challenge. So, if you take adults who are 69-years-old and haven’t played a videogame in 2 years, how do you know if the benefit comes from the particular videogame they played vs. just the value of dealing with a new and complex task?
That’s a great question. The reality is that we don’t know, since we had a “waiting list” control group. In the future perhaps we should compare different videogames or other mentally stimulating activities against each other and see what method is the most efficient. Perhaps the National Institutes on Health may be interested in funding such research.
In any case, your study reinforces an important point: older brains can, and do, learn new skills.
Yes. The rate of learning by older adults may be slower, and they may benefit from more explicit instruction and technology training, but, as a society, it is a massive waste of talent not to ensure older adults remain active and productive.
Full interview: here
And below are his answers to my new questions last week, after both studies were published.
What may, in your view, explain the different effect of Rise of Nations on non-gamers, contrasting both studies?
Certainly one of the most notable between our two studies was the age of the study participants with young adults serving as subjects in the Acta Psychologica paper and older adults serving as subjects in the Psychology & Aging study. We observed training benefits for the older but not for the younger adults. There are several reasons why this might have been the case. First, older adults perform more poorly on the target abilities that we were trying to train that is executive control processes than younger adults. So it might be the case that video game training benefits are more readily observed for cognitive processes that are somewhat degraded. Second, while it is quite easy to find older adults who have never played video games (and especially strategy-based games like Rise Of Nations) it is very difficult to find completely nave younger adults (although the younger adults subjects in our study did play video games less than 1 hour per week). So it is conceivable that video game training based gains might be more readily observed the less experience that someone has with video games. These seem to be the most likely reasons for the different effects in the two studies.
What is the main implication from both studies combined/ what do we know today that we didn’t know 3 months ago?
First, I think that our results suggest promise with regard to video game playing and older adults cognition. However, given, to my knowledge, this is the first attempt to improve executive control abilities of older adults via strategy-based video game playing certainly additional studies should be conducted to further explore this relationship, particularly with real-world tasks as transfer tasks. Second, the results of our study with younger adults suggest that caution is in order with regard to assuming that video game training will enhancing, perceptual, attentional and cognitive abilities of young people. Clearly, there are important boundary conditions of such relationships that we don’t yet know.