They say that gamers are sad, sad souls with no life so isn’t it nice when the tables are turned...
Games and gamers have long had a bad rap. Games have been blamed for all sorts of horrible things – from mass murder to social dystrophy – but they’re now becoming more and more accepted as their benefits unfold.
There have been plenty of studies raving about how playing too many games leads to poor social skills and aggressive behaviour in children but there have been just as many reports claiming that there are positive effects too.
A study, conducted by the University of Rochester in 2003, looked at the effects of playing action games. Using the first person shooter Medal of Honour as the basis for the study, it concluded that game players were better at tracking and reacting to their visual surroundings than non-game players. This potentially makes gamers better at tasks like driving thanks to their sharper reflexes and their ability to rapidly process visual information.
Many scientists are finding that the physical structure of the brain and the neural maps around it not only continue to change throughout life, but that change can be influenced by everyday activities. Several studies suggest that increasing mental activity to keep the brain ‘fit’ does seem to work even after the first symptoms of cognitive decline – although there’s a lot more research to be done on the subject.
According to a study of 33 surgeons at the Beth Israel Medical Centre in New York, doctors who played videogames for three or more hours per week made 37% fewer errors, performed 27% faster and scored 42% better in the test of surgical skills than those who had never played a video game in their life.
The Mind Research Network for Neurodiagnostic Discovery studied the effects of Tetris on the cognitive abilities of adolescent girls over a period of three months. The result? That those who practised this game showed greater brain efficiency and a marked increase in cortical thickness.
“One of the most surprising findings of brain research in the last five years was that juggling practice increased gray matter in the motor areas of the brain,” said Dr. Rex Jung, a co-investigator on the Tetris study and a clinical neuropsychologist. “We did our Tetris study to see if mental practice increased cortical thickness, a sign of more gray matter. If it did, it could be an explanation for why previous studies have shown that mental practice increases brain efficiency. More gray matter in an area could mean that the area would not need to work as hard during Tetris play.” (quote courtesy of The Mind Research Network for Neurodiagnostic Discovery).
In a 2001 study for the University of Michigan, Dr Denise Park explicitly claimed that “cognitive performance is a direct result of brain activity and brain structure, much like cardiovascular fitness relates to our ability to exercise and perform physical tasks.”
Modern mainstream games can also offer these benefits as they demand a level of mental activity that will challenge the brain. As long as the tasks asked of you in a game demand you use a range of cognitive skills then playing it is going to exercise your mind.
It’s never too late to start exercising your brain and, unlike many other parts of the body, apparently a good workout can rejuvenate it, reversing the symptoms of aging. So the next time somebody challenges your penchant for a shiny FPS in the evenings you can confidently assure them that it is merely a cognitive training session.
Top ten mental workouts
Here are our top ten games to engage your brain
1. MindFit - As comprehensive and tailored an exercise program as you could possibly wish for.
2. Dr Kawashima's Brain Training: How Old is Your Brain - There’s a daily workout plan in which Dr Kawashima’s will keep your brain fit and agile by setting challenges like speed reading, memory testing and mental arithmetic. Dr Kawashima’s sold somewhere in the region of four million copies worldwide in just under 18 months.
3. Zone.msn.com - Classic brain testers on offer here include chess, backgammon and scrabble. Play by yourself or against some of the thousands of other people using the site.
4. Playwithyourmind.com - You can play a series of fiendishly challenging Flash games at this site, for no charge (providing you don’t mind some nag screen interruptions).
6. Happy Neuron - Five categories of games specifically designed to push your mind to the limit. Flex those thinking muscles. However you do have to pay the monthly subscription fee?.
7. Medieval 2: Total War - Strategy, tactics and diplomacy. So many variables to keep track of it makes our brain hurt – but no pain no gain…
8. Tetris - Well, actually the whole puzzle genre; good brain workouts, but remember, they’re not stretching every inch of your cerebral cortex. Just the bit for rotating shapes.
9. Supreme Commander - Billed by some as the ultimate strategy game, Supreme Commander demands logical thinking and tactical greatness to succeed.
10. Gamesforthebrain.com - Annoying ads, but some intriguing and fiendishly hard mental exercises all the same.