There’s an upside to children playing video games: It may improve their working memory years later

  • We always hear about the negative effects of video games, but a new study has found a positive link
  • The study compared avid gamers to participants who had no previous experience with playing video games
  • These findings, along with previous findings, indicate that games have the potential to strengthen our cognitive skills

A new study has found that video games don’t always deserve the bad rap they often get.

The study, from the Universitat Oberta de Catalunya (UOC), found that playing video games as a child can improve working memory years later, even if the person had stopped playing.

The study’s findings were published in Frontiers in Human Neuroscience and involved 27 people between the ages of 18 and 40, with and without any kind of experience with video gaming.

The study was carried out over a month, and the researchers analysed participants' cognitive skills, including working memory, at three points: before starting the training in video gaming; at the end of the training; and fifteen days later.

The video game used was Nintendo's Super Mario 64.

Avid gamers perform well with working memory tasks

Previous research has shown how playing video games can lead to structural changes in the brain, such as increasing the size of some regions in the brain, or causing functional changes, like activating the areas responsible for attention or visual-spatial skills.

In the latest study, the researchers found that people without any experience of playing video games as a child did not benefit from improvements in processing and inhibiting irrelevant stimuli. More than this, they were slower than those who had played video games as children.

According to a news release by the university, these results matched what had been seen in earlier studies.

"People who were avid gamers before adolescence, despite no longer playing, performed better with the working memory tasks, which require mentally holding and manipulating information to get a result," said Dr Marc Palaus, from UOC.

Palaus added that they also found that participants who played regularly as children outperformed those that had not in processing three-dimensional (3D) objects. However, he explained that these differences were mitigated after the period of training in video gaming, when both groups ended up showing similar performance levels.

Video games may strengthen cognitive skills

Palaus explained that for their study, they used a 3D platform-adventure video game, but that there are several genres of video games that can influence cognitive functions differently.

The common denominator in all these games, he added, is that they involve elements that make people want to continue playing, and that the game gradually gets harder and presents constant challenges.

"These two things are enough to make it an attractive and motivating activity, which, in turn, requires constant and intense use of our brain's resources.

"Video games are a perfect recipe for strengthening our cognitive skills, almost without our noticing," he said.

Nonetheless, Palaus stressed that these cognitive improvements have a limited effect on the performance of other activities that are not linked to video gaming. This, he said, is the case with most cognitive training.

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