Be honest, you want to be smarter. There’s nothing wrong with that. Studies consistently demonstrate that intelligence is among the most desirable qualities a person has. Whether it's trying to survive an intensive college schedule, appreciate the finer points of Machiavellianism, or impress friends with an accomplished understanding of string theory, we all have our reasons.
A lot of people agree with the idea that learning should be fun. It’s a bit surprising, but in some ways, computer games can teach valuable lessons and may even help improve your mental faculties. Here's what you should consider.
1. Failure is key to success.
Ask pretty much anyone who has ever had any success in anything if they have ever failed. You will invariably get a resounding “Yes!” because everyone has failed at something. Most people probably know about Thomas Edison and his spectacular failure rate (or his successful ruling out of thousands of possible solutions, if you’re a glass-half-full kind of person), but here are a few other examples:
- J.K. Rowling was rejected by 12 publishers
- Einstein didn’t speak until he was 4 and didn’t read until he was 7
- Van Gogh only sold 1 painting in his lifetime
- Michael Jordan was cut from his high school basketball team.
Failure is important.
In many video games, you start out with more than one ‘life’. Straight away this tells you that failure is OK. A lot of the play consists of failing to reach a goal. This encourages persistence and grit: the ability to stick with a problem and see it through without getting demoralized and giving up. This is a really important life skill.
2. Computer games may increase your problem-solving skills.
Consider some advice from Jane McGonigal (designer of alternate reality games, Ph.D. in performance studies): she suggests that if you want to have fun and stimulate your mind, playing about three times a week for just 20 minutes each time should do it.
Just about all of the most popular video games have some requirement for problem-solving and/or critical thinking. This promotes adaptability and cognitive flexibility. These are really important skills to have in any kind of problem-solving task.
3. Gaming keeps your mind active.
It’s unfortunate but inevitable: as we go through life we succumb to both physical and mental decline. Going to the gym or having frequent sex will help to prevent (or at least slow down) the physical losses. To stave off mental decay one must maintain an active brain. Doing crosswords, Sudoku, playing brain games or video games (as long as they’re not entirely mindless) might all help to curb the loss.
While there is no definitive study involving video games and aging, research suggests that seniors who stay mentally active are about 2.6 times less likely to develop Alzheimer’s or dementia. Additionally, a number of studies have suggested that playing video games can help to improve memory (and mood). Clearly the message here is to give both your grandparents and great grandparents Xboxes this Christmas.
4. Gamers are better at visual tasks.
Studies have indicated that compared to non-gamers, experienced gamers are better at: tracking objects; keeping track of several objects simultaneously; filtering out irrelevant information; switching from task to task; detecting changes in visual layouts; and 3D mental rotation.
A recent study conducted by researchers at Brown University found that video game practice was associated with improved visual learning. At least one experiment has found evidence that playing video games can improve the mental rotation abilities of non-gamers.
5. Gaming may increase processing speed.
Being able to process information rapidly is critical in many situations. Motorists, for example, are presented with a lot of information (some of it constantly changing) and asked to make rapid and accurate decisions that can have dramatic implications. In decision making, however, speed is typically sacrificed for accuracy or vice versa. To put it simply, fast decisions often lead to mistakes.
Computer games often require rapid processing of sensory information and prompt action. Indecision or delays in response are penalized. Players are therefore highly motivated to reduce their reaction time (RT).
A few studies have found that gamers have better RTs than non-gamers. This is hardly surprising, but what may be is that this speed generalizes to various tasks (not just the specific game), and that the increased speed does not lead to a decline in accuracy. So basically, gamers process and respond faster, but they don’t lose any accuracy when doing so. Some of these studies have indicated causality by showing that RTs can be trained by game-play!
6. Gamers may have enhanced memory.
A team of neurobiologists from the University of California has found evidence that playing 3D computer games can boost memory power.
They got a group of people to play 2D games half an hour a day for two weeks, and another group to play 3D games half an hour a day for two weeks. Everyone was given a memory test before and after the two weeks. The 2D group didn’t really improve at all, but the 3D group improved by 12%.
7. Playing computer games may improve your ability to multitask.
There is significant evidence that, as Daphne Bevelier (a professor of brain and cognitive sciences who has conducted 20+ studies on playing action video games) put it, “action video games are far from mindless." Her studies suggest that gamers have improved skills in attention, cognition, vision, and multitasking.
In non-gamers, reaction times increased by about 30% when they switched from a single task to more than one task. Gamers still had an increase, but it was only by about 10%.
A study appearing in Nature in 2013 found that just playing a basic 3D racing game for a total of 12 hours over a period of four weeks appeared to improve multitasking performance for up to six months. Improvements were seen in 20-70 year-olds but surprisingly, the trained 60+ year-olds outperformed 20-year-olds who hadn’t played the game. Various other cognitive abilities (sustained attention, working memory, etc.) also improved among older subjects.
To sum this article up in a single phrase: play 3D video games (in moderation), especially if you are over 50.