Are videogames good for YOU? Depends on who YOU are

Two recent sci­en­tif­ic stud­ies pub­lished by Dr. Arthur Kramer and col­leagues present Rise of Nations Arthur Kramerfas­ci­nat­ing 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.

Play­ing com­put­er games improves brain pow­er of old­er adults, claim sci­en­tists (Tele­graph)

- 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.


  1. Kaye on January 7, 2009 at 12:20

    Inter­est­ing! My grand­kids will love this news! Now they’ll have an even more will­ing par­tic­i­pant in their reg­u­lar and com­put­er games :). I used to have fun play­ing Nin­ten­do and Mario Broth­ers with my kids. It’s a lit­tle more com­pli­cat­ed nowa­days, but guess it’s time to bring on the Wii for grand­ma with the grand­kids :) Thanks for the good info!

  2. Alvaro Fernandez on January 7, 2009 at 12:54

    Kaye, great to see some­one putting research find­ings into fun action :-)

    Hope you and your grand­kids have a good and stim­u­lat­ing time.

  3. Jim on February 8, 2009 at 5:07

    great arti­cle. i am a stu­dent work­ing on my degree in game and sim­u­la­tion design, and i’m going to book­mark this arti­cle for future APA cita­tion. very inter­est­ing findings.

  4. Alvaro Fernandez on February 10, 2009 at 8:35

    Jim, glad you found us! please keep us informed of your work.

  5. Damien Noret on October 29, 2009 at 7:56

    This is an amaz­ing arti­cle… i am doing a speech on brain stim­u­la­tion and video games so this helps a lot!

About SharpBrains

SHARPBRAINS is an independent think-tank and consulting firm providing services at the frontier of applied neuroscience, health, leadership and innovation.
SHARPBRAINS es un think-tank y consultoría independiente proporcionando servicios para la neurociencia aplicada, salud, liderazgo e innovación.

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