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Neuropsych

The surprising ways video games can boost your (or your child’s) intelligence

Until recently, video games were accused of killing brain cells. Now, researchers are trying to understand how they help players get smarter.
Credit: Namco Bandai Games
Key Takeaways
  • The assumption that video games make us dumber persists in spite of research suggesting they can lead to cognitive benefits.
  • A recent study suggests that playing games boosts intelligence in young children.
  • Games can improve memory and enable education through play.

When psychologist Brandon Ashinoff was seven years old, his parents got him a Nintendo Entertainment System. The NES, as the console quickly became known after its 1983 release, took video games to the next level with its intuitive design and impressive hardware. It also upset parents, who feared this increasingly popular pastime would damage the psychological development of their children.

Ashinoff’s parents referred to the NES as the “The Idiot Box.” Even at a young age, Ashinoff grasped the underlying meaning of this snidey but seemingly harmless comment. “There was an implicit assumption,” he recounts in an article published by the journal Frontiers in psychology, “that video games were simply a toy and nothing of real substance could be gained from them.”

Video games have been accused of many things over the years. For a long time, people feared they made us lazy, antisocial, depressed and even violent. While these suspicions have since been dispelled by the latest in game-related research, the assumption that gaming diminishes cognitive ability — especially within young children — has stayed with the general public to this day.

There are many reasons for this, one being that the link between video games and intelligence — a highly complicated variable — is difficult to study, let alone delineate in a convincing manner. Still, Ashinoff, who now works as a postdoctoral research fellow at Columbia University’s Department of Psychiatry, can name several studies that demonstrate how gaming helps rather than hurts the human brain.

Video games and child intelligence

The link between video games and intelligence is back in the news thanks to a study published recently in Scientific Reports. This study, co-authored by researchers from Germany, Sweden, and the Netherlands, looked at how various forms of screen time, from watching television to playing games, impacted cognition in children between the ages of nine and ten over a period of two years.

To make sure that the results reflected the impact of screen time and screen time alone, the researchers controlled for other variables that might influence intelligence. These included genetic effects as well as household income, parental education, and neighborhood quality — hugely influential factors for which, according to the authors, no study had previously accounted.

Nintendo NES video games
The Nintendo NES, also known as “The Idiot Machine” among 90s parents. (Credit: GerdeeX / Wikipedia)

At the start of the two-year period, watching videos and socializing online seemed to be “linked to below-average intelligence” while gaming “wasn’t linked with intelligence at all.” When the researchers checked back in with their subjects two years later, however, they found that gaming “had a positive and meaningful effect on intelligence.”

The study concludes that “children who played more video games at ten years were on average no more intelligent than children who didn’t game” and “showed the most gains in intelligence after two years, in both boys and girls. For example, a child who was in the top 17% in terms of hours spent gaming increased their IQ about 2.5 points more than the average child over two years.”

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Interestingly, playing video games was the only form of screen time with a positive impact on intelligence. Spending time on social media was found to have no effect on IQ. Watching TV or online videos initially showed a positive effect. However, this effect disappeared when the researchers took parental education into account, suggesting these activities are not enriching in and of themselves.

How games impact the human brain

The study from Scientific Reports is interesting, but inconclusive. First and foremost, the researchers only looked at games in general and did not make a distinction between individual types of games. We do not know, for instance, if first-person shooters impact intelligence in the same way as platformers, puzzle games, or other genres.

What’s more, the study only investigates whether playing video games impacts intelligence, not how. If games are to be recognized as having substance in the form of educational value, researchers should be able to readily demonstrate the various ways in which they influence the brain and improve our cognitive skills. This, conveniently, is where writers like Ashinoff come in.

Distrustful parents and political activists crusading against video games tend to forget that, at their core, games are puzzles which (like actual, non-digital puzzles) require cognitive skills to solve. “Today’s games,” one academic survey reads, “demand advanced analytical, visuospatial, and problem-solving capacities and tap several other facets of cognitive resources.”

Video games also help with memorization. This has been observed anecdotally by middle school teachers when they see students with learning difficulties recite the names of more than a hundred Pokémon. But it has also been found in research, with one study showing popular games like Mario and Angry Birds can vastly improve recognition memory in adults over a short period of time.

Some veterans used first-person shooters to help with their transition into civilian life. (Credit: United States Department of Defense / Wikipedia)

Research in mice as well as people has shown that confrontation with visually-rich environments can help boost memory. Operating under the assumption that there is no difference between digital environments and real ones, the article cited above discusses using video games in memory training for individuals who — whether because of illness or pandemic restrictions — are forced to stay indoors.

Last but not least, the design of video games mimics the learning processes we encounter in school. “Many games,” writes Ashinoff, “start off with a simple tutorial level that teaches the player the basic mechanics of the game. [The] strategy, and tactics needed to complete tasks become more complex while the teaching method gradually switches from an explicit tutorial to an experience-based process.”

The gamification of pedagogy

Because of these and other parallels, video games have become particularly interesting for people working in pedagogy. In recent years, researchers across the world have teamed up with game developers to create games that are not just entertaining, but also therapeutic, playing a key role in treating conditions like ADHD, PTSD and depression to name a few.

One example of such non-commercial games is ScrollQuest. Developed by the GEMH Lab of Radboud University in Nijmegen, Netherlands, ScrollQuest is a multiplayer game in which players must battle monsters alongside their brothers-in-arms. GEMH designed ScrollQuest to teach adolescents to cope with rejection and social anxiety through gameplay revolving around cooperation and peer-evaluation.

Commercial games can be therapeutic, too. Public health researcher Michelle Colder Carras was surprised to learn that army veterans play first-person shooters like Call of Duty to help with their PTSD. One veteran told her that playing the game helped “things make sense again.” Generally, she found that playing shooters helped ease their transition out of the military back into civilian life.

Finally, video games developed for purely educational purposes could follow in the footsteps of informative children’s programming like Sesame Street, which was originally produced to supplement the insufficient school curricula of inner-city children. Games surpass traditional early-childhood education insofar as they allow students to learn through play, thus capturing their attention and interest.


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