Ask My Mom: Can Video Games Help Brain Power?

Growing up in the ’70s and ’80s, I was part of the first generation of video game players. I spent many an afternoon playing Space Invaders or waiting in line at the local electronics store for the latest offering from Atari. That obsession continued into college with all-night sessions of Super Mario Brothers. But after graduation, my interest in video games faded for the better part of a decade, only to be refueled by a defining influence in my life: My mom.

400536409_3b18c7d9b2_oTo say my mother is an avid gamer is an understatement. She owns multiple gaming consoles, including several iterations of Sony’s Playstation and an X-box. She is on a first-name basis with the salespeople at the local video game store, where at any given time she is probably on a presale list for another title. Her preference is fantasy-based role playing games, the type with titles like Final Fantasy or Dragon Age. When I go to visit I her, I often spend hours watching her diving in dungeons for more treasure or going up against a monster boss. Did I mention she’s 74?

My family tolerates and even encourages my mother’s gaming obsession because we kid that it’s helping her to stave off dementia. Turns out we may be right.

Research presented in a symposium today at the APA convention by Chandramallika Basak, PhD, and her colleagues at the University of Texas, Dallas, suggests that regular playing of strategy role-playing video games can increase cognition and memory compared to people who simply train their brains with written word games and crossword puzzles. The psychologists focused their research on one game: Rise of Nations. In this real-time strategy computer game, players acquire territory upon which they build, defend and expand their nation.

After playing the game for approximately 20 hours over six to eight weeks, participants scored significantly better on a number of cognitive tests than a control group whose members simply trained on word games. They also continued to have better visual memory updating 45 days after they stopped playing.

There are two paths to success in this game. Combat mode relies on the player to conduct military campaigns. Wonder mode rewards players for developing resources and building important structures, known as wonders, such as a Colossus, a pyramid or (in future ages) even a supercollider. The researchers had expected that given a choice, older adults would  choose to play in Wonder mode, but participants preferred to play in combat mode. This may not have been the best choice because the researchers found better results in those who played Wonder mode.

Which leaves me wondering — perhaps I should introduce Mom to Rise of Nations.

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