Can Playing Video Games Improve Executive Function?

Educators agree that mastering executive-functioning skills leads to success.

Posted May 26, 2020

Daniel Molybdenum/Flickr
Source: Daniel Molybdenum/Flickr

Leading educators and futurists agree that mastering executive-functioning skills such as organization, flexibility, planning, and time management will be crucial to success at school and in many 21st-century jobs.

In the past, kids generally acquired these skills through observing their parents and teachers and via traditional play. Most parents do not actively teach executive-functioning skills, assuming that kids pick them up on their own by meeting the demands of school, their interactions with others, and through their play.

Given that much of 21st-century kids’ play is screen-based, it is logical to ask if and how playing video games can help develop executive functions. There are powerful data to suggest that certain types of games and technologies can be important tools for improving executive functions. However, it is also evident that the long-term, generalizable impact of technologies and other brain-training programs on executive functions is limited, given our current tools and strategies. The good news is that we are learning more about the types of games and strategies that promote generalization and long-term learning that can make game-based learning into real-world executive-functioning skills.

Psychologists do not suggest a diet of random video games as the solution to improving a child’s executive-functioning skills, nor does the research suggest that video-game play alone is enough for significantly improving executive functions. However, given the focus, persistence, and time that kids are engaged with video games and other screen-based media, it makes sense to consider how they might be helpful in improving executive-functioning skills. 

In order to maximize the impact of playing video games to improve executive functions, it is important to have a further understanding of the executive-functioning skills that are most crucial for 21st-century success. A general division of skills that are essential for kids includes:  

  • “What to do” skills: starting tasks, paying attention, persevering, and remembering.
  • “How to do” skills: planning, organizing, shifting strategies, and managing time. These also help people manage their perceptions, thoughts, actions, and social interactions.

From this perspective, it is easy to see how play, and video-game play specifically, might practice executive-functioning skills. Playing a video game requires “what to do skills” in finding a starting place, sustaining attention to the task, and making an ongoing effort to master the game. The most complex and popular video games require “how to do” skills in which planning and anticipating challenges are crucial and managing one’s frustrations and actions are necessary for making progress in gameplay.

Luigi Mengato/Flickr
Source: Luigi Mengato/Flickr

A more comprehensive view of executive functions divides executive functions into a variety of other skills. Because psychologists often disagree on what is meant by the term “executive functions,” there are many abilities that are considered to be impacted by executive-functioning skills, including:  

  • Nonverbal working memory (keeping mental information in mind) 
  • Problem-recognition skills (capacity to identify and solve problems)  
  • Fluency (as measured by efficient scanning, manipulation, and decision making)
  • Capacity to engage in purposeful, and self-serving behavior and to understand the gist of a complex situation
  • Hypothesis generation and testing (as required in the scientific method)
  • Common sense (ability to apply one’s experience in new situations)
  • Decision-making and judgment skills (capacity to  appraise and analyze in an accurate fashion)
  • The ability to take in all aspects of a situation and use them in decision-making
  • Capacity to control motor response, actions, and behaviors 
  • Ability to use hindsight, retrospective, and anticipatory thinking
  • Ability to consider the future (work out the consequences of one’s actions)

As with the “what to do, how to do” approach, these skills readily lend themselves to practice, repetition, and challenges presented in video-game play. It is easy to see how games (at least good ones) are based on solving problems, remembering what has worked or failed in the past, a flexible approach to solving problems, and a willingness to try new solutions. This is the rationale for using games and screen-based technologies as tools for improving executive functions. But games are not enough! Making game-based skills into real-world capacities requires some very clear steps.

Here is a starting place for parents and educators who want to help kids improve their executive functions:

San José Public Library/Flickr
Source: San José Public Library/Flickr

Recognize the need for a teacher, mediator, and ongoing practice beyond the game. Identify the strategies that can leverage gameplay into real-world executive functioning.

Learn more about the thinking and action strategies that make game-based learning into real-world skills, including strategic teaching, metacognition, generalization, and transfer. 

Find games that challenge them to think, problem-solve, and learn from mistakes. Make sure that they are age-appropriate and, more importantly, that they like playing them and will want to remain focused and persistent.

Get your kids and students to talk about their gameplay. They will naturally tell you how they solved problems, overcame obstacles, learned from their mistakes, and were persistent. Your job becomes to encourage them to use the same skills in other parts of their life.