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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.

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5 Responses

  1. Kaye says:

    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. Kaye, great to see some­one putting research find­ings into fun action 🙂

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

  3. Jim says:

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

  5. Damien Noret says:

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

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As seen in The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal, BBC News, CNN, Reuters,  SharpBrains is an independent market research firm tracking how brain science can improve our health and our lives.

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