What impact do different types of computer games have on your brain?

Though there has been some debate as to whether playing video games will boost your IQ, researchers pretty much agree that there can be positive effects on several aspects of cognition and motor skills.

Games such as Minecraft are favourites amongst some teachers as they believe games can teach young students reading skills, about the importance of cooperation, how to problem solve, and to stretch their critical thinking.

Whatever your view of their effectiveness, one of the undeniable benefits of video games and other interactive training techniques is that they offer a type of engaging and interesting activity that can help players build and practice new skills. Although a lot of effort has been expended on the production of educational video games, researchers are now more focussed on how commercially available games might have benefits in educational contexts.

Video games in the classroom

As long ago as the late 1970s, researchers began thinking about how video games might one day be used in the classroom. Initial findings showed a variety of positive effects, including improved visual and motor coordination in game players compared to non-players. Research that followed indicated video games could be beneficial for children who may have difficulty learning basic subjects and skills in a traditional way. They could also help students to identify areas where they were weak; motivate and stimulate individual learning; engage and arouse curiosity by giving immediate feedback; and even help some children to concentrate.

Dr James Paul Gee is the Mary Lou Fulton Presidential Professor of Literacy Studies and a Regents’ Professor at Arizona State University, and is one of America’s most respected educators. One of his main areas of expertise is how video games can (and should) be used in education, he has written many of the now classic texts on video games and learning.  

In Good Video Games and Good Learning: Collected Essays on Video Games, Learning and Literacy, he explains how he first realised that video games could be used in the classroom; "I wanted to play the game so I could support Sam’s [my son’s] problem solving. Though Pajama Sam is not an "educational game", it is replete with the types of problems psychologists study when they study thinking and learning. When I saw how well the game held Sam’s attention, I wondered what sort of beast a more mature video game might be. I went to a store and arbitrarily picked a game, The New Adventures of the Time Machine - perhaps, it was not so arbitrary, as I was undoubtedly reassured by the association with HG Wells and literature.

"As I confronted the game I was amazed. It was hard, long, and complex. I failed many times and had to engage in a virtual research project via the Internet to learn some of things I needed to know. All my Baby-Boomer ways of learning and thinking didn’t work. I felt myself using learning muscles that hadn’t had this much of a workout since my graduate school days in theoretical linguistics."

Since his first experience, Dr Gee has been particularly influential in making the case for the learning potential of video games, with an emphasis on literacy and on systemic thinking. "I became intrigued by the implications good video games might have for learning in and out of schools."

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How different games can give your brain a boost

Not all games are equal in what they can bring to your mental workout.

Brainteaser games are meant to give your mind some exercise. Puzzle games like Angry Birds can boost brain function, as well as potentially slow down the brain’s aging process, as they use problem-solving, memory, spatial reasoning, and attention to detail. Motor skills and reaction time can be improved by the platform aspects of other games such as The Legend of Zelda and Mario Bros.

Role Playing Games (RPGs) like Final Fantasy and the Elder Scrolls tend to encourage their players to problem-solve using strategy, and reasoning. The extremely customisable story elements of these games mean that players can develop skills in empathy and ethics, as they can be faced with difficult choices that can have long-lasting consequences.

Real Time Strategy (RTS) games like Age of Empires and World of Warcraft use strategic planning to accomplish a task, defeat an enemy, or co-operate with other players to win the game and as you’re playing in real time, things can go wrong. Players increase their ability to multitask and adapt, as well as communicate with other team-members.

Gaming at university

Teaching techniques, coupled with availability of access to electronic devices and growing sophistication of commercially available games, have come a long way since those early days; several generations have grown up with gaming as part of their daily lives.

Playing video games, then discussing the game has been shown to improve student performance and engagement. In one recent American study, instructors divided a class of undergraduate biology students and gave one group the game Spore to play. The group of students that was assigned to play the game and to complete related exercises had average class scores about four per cent higher than the non-gaming group. The game’s inaccuracies helped to stimulate critical thinking in students; one student saying it helped her understand 'the fine parts of natural selection, artificial selection, survival of the fittest, and genetic diversity because of the errors within the game. It was like a puzzle'.

Nathan Dimech is a Kent-based Business Development Consultant and avid gamer, who certainly believes that playing video games, both in the classroom and at home, has given him real-world skills; "Most of my lectures had interactive quizzes to test our knowledge and understanding as we went along, and as a bioscience student, our case studies were essentially problems to solve - analyse the symptoms, eliminate causes, down to the most likely given the information to hand, research underlying pathology and recommend potential treatments/treatment protocols.

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"I have honed my hand-eye coordination, real-time decision making, and problem-solving skills mainly through video games. Playing MMORPGs (massively multiplayer online role playing games) also developed my patience through "grinding" (carrying out repetitive tasks to slowly level up in-game skills/character/equipment) and social skills as they also served as a social platform. Playing team-based games developed my teamwork and leadership skills, as well as learning to research, to ensure my team had the edge in our games."

The school that embraces video (and traditional) games

At New York’s Quest to Learn school (often shortened to Quest), students approach education with a hands-on, inquiry-driven, game-based approach to teaching and learning.

Each trimester, every Quest teacher teams up with a game designer and a curriculum designer to create games-based curricula that are grounded in the New York State standards and relevant to the lives of young people today. They also make games to address specific learning or assessment goals, focusing on areas where students might typically struggle. Quest also changed its grading system to more digital-user-familiar titles like Expert, Apprentice, and Novice. Preliminary test results indicate that Quest 8th -10th graders demonstrate twice the rate of learning growth as college students in critical thinking, problem solving, analytical skills, and written communication, so this games-based approach seems to be working for them.

In real life

Video games in the real world can help people experience risky situations without them having to be in danger; for years commercial airlines have used flight simulators to teach their pilots how to fly. More recently researchers at Sheffield Hallam University have developed virtual reality (VR) software to help amputees get used to their new prosthetics, and surgeons learn how to do complicated operations through virtual operations.

As VR and Augmented Reality (AR) become more present in our lives, there is seemingly no limit to how video games and their legacy may impact upon our future learning and development.

Iain Kent is a London-based Business Analyst, dad and gamer, who believes that video games are more than just aids to relaxation; "I played a game called Silent Hunter that taught me a bit about how and where WW2 submarines operated. Playing it on the confines of a computer screen, with the lights out, helped to convey some of the sense of claustrophobia of being in a sub. I have played MS Flight Simulator too and that is pretty good at teaching about aircraft navigation and operation.

"I’ve got a VR headset and although there is not really a killer app for it yet on the PlayStation, some of the games and applications give a hint at what could be possible. I was watching a VR video set in Sydney on a miserable day here and I found that just a few minutes in the virtual sun made a noticeable difference to my mood."

As the father of a young child, would Iain ever worry about his child playing video games at home or at school? "No, but it depends on the game - it would need to be appropriate." In fact, he would want a school to use interactive technology for learning.

The potential downsides

Of course, as with anything, if too much time is spent doing it rather than studying or working, playing games can be detrimental to both school and social life.

Nathan Dimech: "It makes a great escape for depression (although care should be taken to avoid relying too heavily and recognise when addictive behaviours emerge), and helps anxiety as [playing games] gives a structure and rules that are easy to operate in and reward you consistently for following.

"Heavy reliance on any technology over extensive periods of time limits the development of interpersonal skills, you cannot learn to read people, empathise or cooperate in life without the physical, or without being around people. The growth in social media usage has seen people being more socially awkward, and I worry that very important social skills are being overlooked by a relatively large percentage of both my generation and the one below."

This is a guest blog and may not represent the views of Virgin.com. Please see virgin.com/terms for more details. Thumbnail from gettyimages.

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