Are Video Games Actually Good for Your Brain?

One of the most dreaded sights for parents in the 21st century: a child, flopped on the couch, game controller in hand, eyes glazed over as the TV flickers. The perception of gamers as hypnotized, passive zombies has spurred debates about violence, sedentary lifestyles and the cultural value of game content. But a new study from Florida State University suggests that there might be more to some video games than meets the eye — they might, in fact, be effective tools for boosting brain function.

The study, published in the journal Computers & Education, divided 77 student participants into two groups. The experimental group played eight hours of the popular video game Portal 2, while the control group used Lumosity, a set of online interactive activities marketed toward those who want to train their brains. Participants were given a pre-test and post-test to evaluate their progress, and the results were clear: Portal 2 participants outperformed the Lumosity group in all three categories tested — problem solving, spatial ability and persistence.

Valerie Shute, the study’s lead author, was not surprised by the Portal players’ high performance.

“You can’t succeed in the games without solving problems and being creative, too,” Shute said, later adding, “Lumosity does make the claim that it improves problem solving and flexibility, and all these things, so my position was, ‘OK, talk is cheap; how about a commercial game that has no pretenses of doing any of that stuff?’”

Shute, an FSU professor of education, is fascinated by video games and their potential for learning. After her first gaming experience, trying out a game called Doom in the early 1990s, she was hooked — and over time, she realized the engaging aspect of video games could mean big things for teaching and assessment. Contrary to what some might see on the surface, Shute says gamers immerse themselves in a world that requires them to apply rules and solve problems to make progress.

Doom is a first-person shooter game, and, like many games, it gets harder as you go along.

“In order to succeed in the game, as it ratchets up and increases in its difficulty, you have to persist,” she said.

Persistence was one of the measures in which Portal 2 players vastly outperformed the Lumosity control group.

Games like Portal 2, where players to apply rules and tools in strategic ways, require considerable persistence and mental flexibility. In Portal 2 specifically, players use a portal gun to fire one entry portal and one exit portal anywhere in the environment. Players use these portals to move their character and objects through different areas. For instance, firing an entrance into a wall and an exit at the top of stairs above would allow a player to walk through the wall and exit onto the top of the staircase.

Shute and her colleagues chose Lumosity as their control condition because it is widely marketed as a way to strengthen brain function. They hoped Lumosity would engage a placebo effect, so that both groups, experimental and control, would have similar expectations of improvement. This way, expectations would not be seen as having affected the outcome.

“In many aspects I am quite liberal,” Shute said with a laugh. “But when it comes to my research design and my statistics, I’m very conservative, and I have to be so that my data are credible.”

The widest post-test performance gap was in spatial abilities; Portal 2 players significantly improved in both small- and large-scale spatial abilities.

“Some of the other studies in the literature have 10, 20, 30 hours of gameplay before they find effect, so finding that was really a big deal,” Shute noted. “And for the Lumosity condition, none of the spatial tests showed any kind of significant improvement at all.”

The results were pretty clear, but the study was not without limitations. Shute explained that, ideally, the study would have involved more participants and spanned more time, allowing more hours of gameplay. But Shute believes further research with more time and participants would actually enhance the results, rather than negate them.

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