Video games and the brain will always be a hotly debated topic. While some studies say they can desensitize players to real-world violence and cause brain damage and cognitive delays, other studies suggest that certain games help develop better decision-making skills.
There are rehab centers that use some games for stroke patients in recovery, and there have been studies that suggest patients with Alzheimer’s or other forms of dementia can benefit from gaming. Recent research from the Ruhr-Universität Bochum is making headlines for its suggestion that people who play video games on a regular basis can learn faster than those who do not.
The study was small, involving 17 volunteers who reported that they played computer and console video games for longer than 15 hours per week. Those participants were tested against a control group of 17 individuals who did not play video games. The cognitive testing used in the study is known as the “Weather prediction test” though it doesn’t involve trying to predict sunshine or storms. The test measures how well someone can learn to understand probability.
The game is played by researchers showing participants of a combination of three cards, each with a different symbol. They are then asked to estimate what the weather will be based on the symbols, and they are given feedback on the accuracy of their prediction. After a few rounds of this, participants learned that certain combinations of symbols were an indicator of sun and other combos indicated rain. At the same time as they were playing the game, study volunteers were undergoing MRI scans to record electrical activity in different regions of the brain.
To judge how well the test subjects had retained the material and the method of learning it, they were asked to fill out questionnaires after finishing the task that measured how much knowledge they had acquired as a result of the test. The results showed that video gamers had a significantly better ability than non-players in predicting the “weather” based on the card combinations. Even when the combinations signaled a higher level of uncertainty in weather outcome (for example, a combination that indicated a 60% chance of rain and 40% chance of sun), the gamers were still better at predicting the outcome.
The gamers results on the questionnaires were also indicative of a larger volume of knowledge being acquired as compared to the control group who were not regular game players. First author Sabrina Schenk explained, “Our study shows that gamers are better in analysing a situation quickly, to generate new knowledge and to categorise facts -- especially in situations with high uncertainties. We think that playing video games trains certain brain regions like the hippocampus. That is not only important for young people, but also for older people; this is because changes in the hippocampus can lead to a decrease in memory performance. Maybe we can treat that with video games in the future."
Schenk also stated that the MRI scans showed a higher level of activity in the hippocampus of the gamers’ brains. The hippocampus is an area associated with memory and learning and is frequently the target of studies involving memory loss, dementia, and cognitive function. The video below has more information about the study and what it could mean for future research.