Genuine Curiosity

Author Dwayne Melancon is always on the lookout for new things to learn. An ecclectic collection of postings on personal productivity, travel, good books, gadgets, leadership & management, and many other things.


Sharper Minds Through Video Games?

I play a lot of video games during my travels - it is a great release to unwind in my hotel room, and I find it very relaxing (yes).  I flit from one to another quite often, but my current favorites are Borderlands 2, Diablo III, and Call of Duty: Black Ops.  I also tend to apply lessons I learn from video games into how I view the world; for example, I have given multiple talks about what information security can learn from video games - such as this brief talk the RSA Security Conference earlier this year).  

With that in mind, I wanted to make sure I wasn't deluding myself - to find out if there really is something to this "learning from video games" thing I preach about all the time.

According to the Entertainment Software Rating Board, 59 percent of Americans regularly play video games, with the industry earning more than $10.5 billion in revenue annually. The survey also showed 44 percent of respondents play video games on their smartphones and 33 percent play on wireless devices. The rise in popularity of gaming has also led to the rise of studies investigating the potential negative effects they have. The Ohio State University found an increase in violent video game playing resulted in a spike in aggression.  

For what it's worth, I can definitely tell the difference between video games and reality and I think this resultant increase in aggression might be true of any competitive activity, such as organized sports.  Of course, that is just my theory...  

Since I know I benefit from playing video games and I don't feel they are harming me, I was curious about the "other end of the spectrum" when it comes to the impact of video games.  As it turns out, more researchers are looking into how video games can benefit us and report surprising results. Boosting memory, delaying cognitive decline and increasing multitasking ability and confidence are just some of the ways we can benefit from regularly playing video games.

Boost your memory

Recent studies from the Georgia Institute of Technology show gaming won't necessarily improve reasoning and problem solving, but can help boost your memory. Working Memory Capacity (WMC), is our ability to recall information relatively quickly even while distracted. The study showed that gaming can help strengthen our memory skills, along with our ability to work on a variety of tasks or switch between them quickly.

That makes sense, since practice with just about anything - including retention of data - tends to improve your abilities in that area.

Prevent cognitive decline

Playing games and using the computer may help prevent cognitive decline and preserve brain function. Staying mentally and physically active — whether by socializing, exercising or playing games — could also delay the onset of Alzheimer’s. Game resources like iWin carry a variety of puzzle games and mind teasers that could help strengthen memory, improve hand-eye coordination and encourage problem solving on convenient mobile devices or tablets.

I used to play Brain Age on my Nintendo DS to help in this area, and I know people who swear by Sudoku and other puzzles as a way to keep their memories and minds sharp.  I say you enjoy it and it doesn't cause any harm, why not?

Improve Multitasking

Researchers at UC San Francisco discovered video games, especially 3-D varieties, can actually improve overall cognitive performance in older, healthy adults. Senior citizens who played the games for 12 hours over the course of a month showed an improvement in working memory and sustained attention. Their ability to multi-task also improved as they became more skilled at switching focus during their gaming activities.

Of course, we can't truly "multi-task," but the better we can context switch and get back on our mental feet when switching from one task to another, the better.  I've noticed that my eyes take longer to adjust from close vision to far vision as I get older, and I suspect that resistance to switching from one context to another is a challenge from a mental perspective.

Build Confidence

Scientists at the University of Essex explored if people's self-esteem improves while gaming because it gives them the chance to experiment with characteristics they envision their ideal self possessing. The Researchers discovered gamers enjoyed gaming the most when there was little overlap between their actual and ideal self. Participants reported feeling better about themselves after playing with the personality traits they wanted, such as being outgoing.

I definitely agree with this.  Even though it is an artificial world, I find that taking risks in video games makes it easier for me to take risks in the real world - it can help you feel less anxious in the face of the uncertain.

Improve your vision

While some say excessive video gaming can hinder your eyesight, some new studies show the opposite to be true. Researchers at the University of Rochester discovered action video gamers who play a few hours a day over a month improved their vision by 20 percent. This improvement came from being able to pick out letters from a clutter of images. Gamers played for about 30 hours and saw a significant increase in their vision's spatial resolution.

Again, this feels right to me.  Not only do video games improve my reaction time, they force me to expand my attention to take in more things - this is true from a visual point of view, but also from an overall situational awareness perspective.  I need to keep tabs on where I am, how I'm doing versus my objectives, how the others in my party are faring, pay attention to new threats and opportunities, etc.

The bottom line

OK, so maybe I'm guilty of contrived rationalization, but in my book, the data says playing video games is good for me.  Enough said - I'm sticking with it!