Could video games be good for your brain? According to research from Queen Mary University of London and University College London, some of them might be. Researchers at the two universities evaluated the “cognitive flexibility” of volunteers who played either a real-time strategy game or a slower paced simulation game. They found that the participants who played the real-time strategy game showed greater improvement in cognitive flexibility than the participants who played the other game.

The researchers recruited 72 female volunteers. Although they were not specifically aiming for women, they found that they were unable to recruit sufficient men who played video games for no more than two hours weekly. The participants were divided into three groups: two played StarCraft, a real-time strategy game, and one played The Sims, a slow-paced life simulation. Each group played for 40 hours over a six to eight week interval. The researchers evaluated the participants’ cognitive flexibility—that is, the ability to switch between tasks, think about multiple ideas at once, and solve problems—before and after game play interval.

At the end of the study, the StarCraft groups demonstrated greater accuracy and speed in the cognitive flexibility tasks than the group that played The Sims. Furthermore, the participants who played the most complex version of the game did the best in the post-game tests.

Dr. Brian Glass of Queen Mary’s School of Biological and Chemical Sciences explained the findings, “Previous research has demonstrated that action video games, such as Halo, can speed up decision making but the current work finds that real-time strategy games can promote our ability to think on the fly and learn from past mistakes.”

Cognitive flexibility is not a static ability, but it can be improved through activities like playing video games. Cognitive flexibility is also critical for creative thinking, which is important for succeeding the modern knowledge economy.

More research is needed to understand what exactly about these games it is that facilitates the development of cognitive flexibility and whether the changes last or will diminish over time. Knowing more about what hones these cognitive skills could help in the development of interventions for symptoms of ADHD or traumatic brain injury.

This research is published in the journal PLOS One.          

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