Brain Awareness Week 2020: Cognitive function and commercial video games

This year, Brain Awareness Week falls between 16th and 22nd March. The campaign, organised by the Dana Foundation, aims to foster public enthusiasm and support for brain science while making research accessible for all.

In the spirit of the campaign, we’re taking an insight into a recent review by Min-Hyeon Park et al. published in Behavioral and Brain Functions, considering the different genres of commercial video games available, and how they are associated with cognitive function.

The study aimed to lean away from the negative picture of video games presented by research into compulsive engagements and addiction, and present a more balanced view. The commercial video games included in this study were split into five main genres, which in turn could be split down into sub-genres:

  • Traditional games – online puzzle, card and board games, including Solitaire
  • Simulation games – sports, driving or life simulating games, such as The Sims
  • Strategy games – real time games played in global view, for instance Spore and Starcraft
  • Action games – characterised into first-person (Fortnite) and third-person (Call of Duty) depending on whether the character is visible
  • Fantasy games – allowing exploration of the fantasy environment eg. Skyrim

    Tetris
    Radachynskyi / Getty Images / iS

Across the different studies examined in this review, several improvements in cognitive function were identified. Frequent video game players were found to be better at sustaining attention, with Action Video Games in particular associated with improvement in selective attention. Changes in brain activation suggest that action game players are better at filtering information and efficiently allocating attention to important information.

Another improved cognitive function reported was visuo-spatial function. Playing Tetris was discovered to enhance spacial cognition, and ten hours of action game play resulted in improved navigational skills.

Adolescents who more regularly played specifically strategic video games across a four-year period during high school have shown improved problem solving skills in comparison to their peers.

The last cognitive function found to be positively associated with gameplay was second language development. In mass multiplayer online games, opportunities for interaction in the target language are frequent, and an efficient method for acquisition and use of new vocabulary.

Gaming Controllers
krung99 / Getty Images / iStock

However, individual differences between players modulate the extent to which commercial video gaming can lead to cognitive enhancement. After peaking at the age of 13-14 years, time spent playing video games decreases over time, so the effect of gaming on cognitive function is likely to decrease with age. Age is also linked to cognitive function itself, with neuroplasticity – the ability for the brain to form and reorganize connections in response to learning – decreasing with time.

Gender is also reported as a modulating factor. While male and female-identifying players experience similar cognitive benefits in terms of attentional advantage, males have been found to play video games for longer stints, influencing overall effect on cognitive function.

On balance, this review provides a counterpart to gaming’s reputation within neuroscience as ‘the world’s fastest growing addiction’ which shares neurobiological abnormalities with other addictive disorders.

Through relating to the 2.2 billion gamers across the planet and asking the right questions about how neuroscience permeates our day to day lives, this study encapsulates Brain Awareness Week’s purpose of sharing the impact brain science has on the wider world.

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