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Playing games for your brain

Victoria MacLennan. 21 November 2023, 10:50 am

A friend recently messaged me to ask for recommendations of games he can play to improve his cognitive thinking and memory skills as he ages. As someone who games (too much some might say) I thought - that’s easy! all games are great for those skills right? Turns out some are better than others. An estimated 15% of gamers in the US are aged over 55, reading some of these articles it probably should be more. 

There are thousands of blogs, studies, articles out there on this topic, this guy has pulled a load of these together into one blog post.  Also worth a read

Why does gaming work?

“Engaging in brain training games that rely heavily on strategy and quick thinking have been linked to improving memory, response time, logic skills, and improved cognitive function. Whether it's a word puzzle, number game, or picking up a new hobby, there are a variety of brain exercises out there that you can do to boost overall cognitive health, memory retention, and even creativity.” source

Some games are more effective than others for memory and cognitive improvements due to various factors (below) their effectiveness depends on their design and how they engage different cognitive processes.

Exposure to Novel Stimuli:

The National Institute on Aging highlights that being exposed to novel environments can benefit cognition, including memory. Video games, particularly those offering novel and three-dimensional environments, can enhance cognitive health in older adults. For instance, a study found that playing games like "Super Mario" or "Angry Birds," which were novel to the participants, resulted in improved recognition memory. The three-dimensional environment of "Super Mario" was particularly beneficial, indicating that both novel experiences and exposure to rich three-dimensional environments work together to improve cognition

Exercising the brain:

A study published in the journal Nature found that a game developed by a California neuroscientist helped older adults improve multitasking skills, sustained attention, and working memory six months after playing the game. I have also read older studies stating longer term benefits of exercising the brain with games. 

Cognitive Load and Skill Requirement:

Games requiring skill and effort have a more significant impact on cognition. These games improve cognitive processes that are repeatedly used while gaming. The cognitive improvements align with the skills and challenges presented by the game. For instance, top players of complex games like "League of Legends" show enhanced cognitive skills like decision control and multitasking

Games grab our attention:

  • Engaging and rewarding - Video games are fun, engaging, active, and rewarding. These factors improve cognition by engaging various senses and cognitive processes. This engagement leads to the rehearsal, refinement, and enhancement of specific cognitive abilities over time
  • Genre / interest specific - players are engaged by their interests finding it a more rewarding experience to continue playing while improving abilities through progression 
  • Rewarding - completion of tasks, progression of storylines, levelling up all provide reward. This can lead to addiction to gaming which is a very real issue not to be taken lightly. 

It’s not all good news

While video games can improve specific cognitive skills, they do not generally improve overall intelligence. The skills developed in gaming tend to be specific to the context of the game and do not translate into unrelated skills like language proficiency ie: there are Limitations in General Intelligence Improvement. 

I also read about Near-Transfer and Far-Transfer Effects. Video games exhibit a strong near-transfer effect, where skills developed in the game apply in similar contexts. However, the far-transfer effect, where skills improve in unrelated areas, is weaker. Strategic thinking in games, for instance, improves overall memory and problem-solving capacity, particularly in children

Then there are the well understood negative aspects of gaming - addiction, social isolation, desensitisation, social skills decline, EQ decline - there are many articles dedicated to the negative side of this topic.

Not just adults 

Improved Cognitive Skills in Children - Research by the National Institutes of Health showed that children who played video games for three hours or more per day performed better on cognitive skills tests involving impulse control and working memory. This study suggests that video gaming may be associated with better cognitive performance in children. It was observed that children who played video games showed higher brain activity in regions associated with attention and memory. The researchers believe these patterns stem from practicing tasks related to impulse control and memory while playing video games, which can be cognitively demanding

That said the jury is still out on kids and video games. This article (sorry it’s laden with adverts) gives a more balanced view.

But what games are best?

I turned to ChatGPT to ask for a list. Here is GPT 4’s answer: 

Brain Training Apps:

  • Lumosity (Mobile/PC): Offers a range of brain games targeting different cognitive skills.
  • Peak (Mobile): Features over 40 games focusing on memory, attention, and problem-solving.
  • Elevate (Mobile): Provides games aimed at improving communication and analytical skills.
  • CogniFit (Mobile/PC): Offers personalized brain games to improve cognitive abilities.

Puzzle and Strategy Games:

  • Sudoku (Mobile/PC): A number-placement puzzle that improves logic and concentration.
  • Candy Crush Saga (Mobile/PC): A puzzle game that enhances pattern recognition and strategic planning.
  • Civilization VI (PC): A strategy game that requires planning, strategic thinking, and decision-making.
  • The Witness (PC): An open-world game with puzzles that enhance logic and spatial reasoning.

Word and Trivia Games:

  • Words With Friends (Mobile): A Scrabble-like game that improves vocabulary and spelling.
  • Trivia Crack (Mobile): A trivia game that tests and expands general knowledge.
  • Crossword Puzzles (Mobile/PC): Various apps offer crossword puzzles, enhancing word recall and vocabulary.

Memory and Attention Games:

  • Brain Age (Nintendo Switch): Includes games designed to train and test memory, math skills, and more.
  • Simon Says (Mobile): A classic memory sequence game.
  • Memory Match (Mobile): A simple yet effective memory matching game.

Language Learning Apps:

  • Duolingo (Mobile/PC): Offers language learning that can improve cognitive flexibility and memory.
  • Babbel (Mobile/PC): Focuses on conversational language learning, enhancing memory and comprehension.

Virtual Reality (VR) Games:

  • Beat Saber (VR): A rhythm game that combines music, rhythm, and physical activity.
  • Moss (VR): A VR adventure game that requires problem-solving and strategy.

Educational and Skill-Building Platforms:

  • Khan Academy (Mobile/PC): Offers courses on various subjects, stimulating learning and cognitive engagement.
  • Coursera (Mobile/PC): Provides online courses from universities and institutions, encouraging continuous learning.

Mindfulness and Meditation Apps:

  • Headspace (Mobile): Offers guided meditation and mindfulness exercises.
  • Calm (Mobile): Provides meditation techniques, sleep stories, and relaxing music.

This list seemed short so I asked Bing Chat the same question: 

Sure, here are some more games that can help improve memory and cognitive skills in adults, grouped by improvement type:

Memory Improvement:

  • Sudoku: A number placement game that relies on short-term memory. It helps improve short-term memory and concentration. 
  • Crosswords: A classic brain trainer that accesses not only verbal language but memory from many dimensions of knowledge. 
  • Wordle: A game that challenges your problem-solving skills and vocabulary. 
  • Memory Match: A game that requires you to remember the location of cards and match them. 
  • Simon: A game that tests your memory and attention span.

Attention Improvement:

  • Elevate: A brain training app that has 35 different games with an educational feel.
  • Peak: A brain training app that has over 40 games designed to improve cognitive skills such as memory, attention, and problem-solving.

Logic Improvement:

  • Lumosity: A brain training and mental fitness program that offers fun games, tests, and activities backed by science.
  • Brain Age: A game that challenges your brain with math problems, memory tests, and other exercises. It’s available on Nintendo DS and Nintendo Switch .

Bing’s primary source was this article

Happy gaming! Vic 


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