July 2, 09
Is gaming good for the mind?
Remember training your brain through games? Since bursting onto the scene a few years ago in Nintendo's hit Brain Training games, the concept of gaming our way to bigger, better cortexes has flamed out a bit, due largely to a flood of poorly-made, copycat titles and the dwindling of the belief that this sort of thing actually makes you smarter.
Food for thought
But while consumers have shifted away from the pseudo-educational genre, scientists have dropped it under a microscope in the hope of gleaning some insight into exactly how games affect the mind.
And according to some recent studies, it turns out that playing video games not only stimulates those synapses, but might actually make you a sharper thinker after all.
Courtesy of a $1.2 million grant, researchers from North Carolina State University and the Georgia Institute of Technology are hard at work studying whether or not video game playing can boost thinking skills and memory in the elderly. Rather than simply determining if certain games increase certain brain functions, the team is hoping to first identify the qualities that make a game good for the brain, then use that information to build a prototype brain game from the ground up.
The game best suited for the job? Oddly enough, it's EA's critically-acclaimed Boom Blox games. Dr. Anne McLaughlin, assistant professor of psychology at NC State, believes the Wii puzzle-party franchise contains three fundamental brain-strengthening qualities -- attentional demand, novelty and social interaction -- key to making a great brain game.
"For example, if we find that novelty and attentional demand improve cognition, we'll then develop a game that focuses on that," she said.
While McLaughlin and her crew aim to help grandparents stay sharp, other are examining what effects gaming will have on the next generation. A recent article in Scientific American targets "plasticity," or the brain's ability to dynamically change in response to experiences. Children are more susceptible to this kind of change, which means that the kinds of games they play could have different effects on their adult skill sets.
So which games are best for kids? That depends on what they want to be when they grow up. A study at the University of Rochester indicates that playing action games can increase hand-eye coordination and sharpen vision, while playing games like The Sims 2 might improve social interactions and even make people more empathetic. So if Johnny wants to be a fighter pilot, he might want to play some Wii Sports Resort instead of Wii Music.
Plus, you know, it's just a better game. And it doesn't take a big brain to figure that out.