Scott Weems, Ph.D.

Scott Weems Ph.D.

Feed Your Head

Are You Playing the Right Video Games to Raise Your IQ?

Some video games are linked with intelligence. Are you playing the right ones?

Posted Feb 23, 2018

Blend Images/Shutterstock
Source: Blend Images/Shutterstock

Ever since my parents bought me an Atari 2600 for my 9th birthday, I’ve loved video games. When the console version of Asteroids debuted, I was first in line. When word got around that Adventure, one of the first open-ended quest games, had secret rooms if you knew where to look, I skipped soccer practice to find out for myself. Granted, the quest only involved a square dot running from dragons that looked like ducks, but it still had me mesmerized.

Video games are a lot different now, but my love is still there. Now the dragons actually look like dragons, and quests involve worlds nearly as complex as our own. I don’t play as often as I’d like, because I’m in my 40s, and free time is rare, but I still keep up the games, because they’re a fun distraction. They’re also healthy for our brains, as shown by a study published this past November by researchers from the University of York.

My favorite game right now is Overwatch, a popular online battle game in which teams of players work together to accomplish goals, like capturing a waypoint. There’s a lot of strategy involved, because success requires all teammates to work together. So it shouldn’t be surprising that when Athanasios Kokkinakis of the University of York had players of a similar game also take intelligence tests, he saw a strong relationship. Specifically, he had 56 experienced players complete a standardized test of fluid intelligence, along with assessments of their working memory and game-playing performance. It turned out that those who played better in the video game also had higher intelligence, as well as improved spatial working memory. 

Even more interesting is that other games didn’t show the same relationship. Simple “first-person shooter” games like Battlefield 3 don’t have the same link with IQ, and also show a different pattern with age. For simple shooting games, the younger you are, the better, because hand-eye coordination is key. For strategy games, which depend more on IQ, the optimal age was much later, closer to 30. That’s because with age comes experience, and sometimes a faster and more experienced brain is more important than a faster hand.

It would be easy to take findings like this and say, "So what? Higher intelligence is linked to lots of things, like better workplace performance and greater lifetime earnings, so why not video games also?" Well, it’s possible that video games may actually make you smarter. In another study, scientists from Florida State University had participants either perform “brain-training” games on Lumosity, which claims to improve cognitive performance, or break out the Playstation to play Portal 2. That’s a different game altogether, a puzzle-based strategy game in which the player has to navigate a complex, changing environment. And it turns out that those who trained on Lumosity improved on nothing at all, while those who played Portal 2 showed improvements in problem solving, along with spatial skill and persistence. 

Not only that, but other work has shown that simply playing such games increases the grey matter in the brain too, especially in the frontal areas associated with intelligence. It even increases the white matter associated with greater cortical connectivity.

So, if you’re thinking about taking up a new hobby, video games might be right for you. Just be careful what you pick. If the game involves puzzles or complex strategy, it’s probably a good choice. If the game involves a lot of shooting and running, unless your brain is especially young and fast, there’s not much to be gained. If the game involves dragons that look like ducks, well, it’s probably time to update the console.

Most important, if you play Overwatch and are ever on a team with “Darth Cuddle,” be kind, because he’s old and doing his best. 

References

Colom, R., Quiroga, M., Solana, A., Burgaleta, M., Roman, F., Privado, J., Escorial, S., Martinez, K., Alvarez-Linera, J., Alfayate, E., Garcia, F., Lepage, C., Hernandez-Tamames, J., and Karama, S. (2012). Structural changes after videogame practice related to brain network associated with intelligence, Intelligence, 40, 479-289.

Kokkinakis, A., Cowling, P., Drachen, A., and Wade, A. (2017). Exploring the relationship between videogame expertise and fluid intelligence. PLoS One, 12, 1-15

Shute, V., Ventura, M., and Ke, F. (2015).  The power of play: The effects of Portal 2 and Lumosity on cognitive and noncognitive skills, Computers and Education, 80, 58-67.

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