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Can playing video games improve cognition and adaptability?

By Shane Gallagher • September 02, 2013

A recent study by ADL with Sheppard Air Force Base has shown that a video game having specific design features (i.e., implicit rules, implicit rule changes, dynamic shifting environments, open endedness, and implicit feedback) can enhance specific cognitive capabilities after playing for 12 consecutive hours as compared to games without those features. This was determined by having airmen play either Portal 2™ (a game that has the design features) or Windows 7 Microsoft™ games (Solitaire, Minesweeper, Mahjong, and Hearts, all games lacking the five design features) bookended by pre- and post-play cognitive testing. Those playing Portal 2™ scored significantly higher on focused attention – in both signal detection (correctly recognizing and interpreting the information) and response latency (the amount of time taken to respond to the information). Scoring higher on these tests means that one can more easily and quickly detect what’s important from what isn’t important when solving problems.

Another very interesting finding was that playing video games for 19 hours a week or more may significantly increase cognitive capabilities in the areas of spatial working memory, spatial sequencing, and cognitive planning. This was discovered by grouping test results by those who identified themselves as playing 19 hours of video games per week (high gamers) or those playing less than that (low gamers). The differences on the cognitive tests were all significant (p=.001, p=.003, p=.001) with increased scores in high gamers. In other words, this means that playing video games seems to enhance spatial abilities such as remembering and tracking objects in space – i.e., creating a cognitive map – as well as the processes involved in the formulation, evaluation, and selection of a sequence of thoughts and actions to achieve a desired goal.

Why do we care? Spatial abilities are important in navigating from one place to another in the virtual or the real world – driving in traffic, getting to the office, going home; or if you’re a lab rat, learning the location of food at the end of a maze. However, they are also frequently noted as important to language acquisition and mathematical comprehension, and are important components of higher order thinking skills such as problem solving and critical thinking (Osberg, 1997). Cognitive planning makes use of these abilities as an individual thinks through the steps and sequence of steps to solve problems. This is a critical skill to reason out problem solutions and evaluate results, and supports cognitive adaptability as one mentally “tries out” various solutions to a novel problem before acting. An increase in spatial abilities and cognitive planning in combination with an increase in quality and quickness of signal detection, suggests that frequency of video game playing generally, as well as specifically playing games with the above mentioned features, can increase cognitive capabilities in the players and specifically those capabilities important to being cognitively adaptable.

Osberg, K. (1997). Spatial cognition in the Virtual Environment. Seattle: University of Washington.