High score: Video game play linked to better cognitive performance

Children playing video games for more than three hours a day score better on cognitive performance compared to non-gamers.

A study involving more than 1,800 children aged nine and ten by researchers at the University of Vermont in the United States, is believed to be the largest investigation looking at the association between video games, cognition and brain function. 

The researchers found children who played more than 21 hours of video games per week recorded better scores for response inhibition and working memory than those who never played. The article is published in JAMA Network Open.

Lead author Dr Bader Chaarani told Cosmos, “it makes sense that if you consider the brain is like a muscle, the more you train it, the better it performs.” 

Impulse control is considered important as it is linked to substance use in adolescence, while working memory is connected to IQ and language processing, Chaarani says.

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In the study, the children performed two tasks inside an MRI scanner. The first was a ‘stop signal task’ measuring impulse control. The task required children to press a button when arrows pointed left or right, but not press anything when the arrows point up. The second, a working memory task showed children pictures of faces and tested their recall.

Children were also tested outside the scanner using oral and verbal tasks.

In contrast to the findings of other research, the study did not find any significant difference between gamers and non-gamers in terms of mental health or behaviour. 

Chaarani says, “many parents today are concerned about the effects of video games on their children’s health and development, and as these games continue to proliferate among young people, it is crucial that we better understand both the positive and negative impact that such games may have.”

In Australia, 78% of children and teenagers play video games, averaging 106 minutes per day, according to research commissioned by the Interactive Games and Entertainment Association.

In the University of Vermont study, non-video gamers (who spent zero hours a week playing games) and gamers (who played more than 21 hours a week) were recruited from a mix of 21 public, private and charter schools across the United States.

The two groups did not differ in terms of characteristics such as age, BMI or IQ. However, the gamers group had a higher share of boys, and lower parental income on average.

The research forms part of the Adolescent Brain Cognitive Development Study, the largest long-term study of brain development and child health in the United States. This allows children to be tracked over time into early adulthood to see if changes in video gaming behaviour are linked to changes in cognitive skills, brain activity, behaviour, and mental health.

While the results showed an association between playing video games and higher cognitive performance, the paper notes it does not evidence for causality. This will be the focus of further research, given the Adolescent Brain Cognitive Development Study follows children every two years.

Chaarani says they also plan to look at the effect of video game genre in future work. The current study did not differentiate by the type of video games children played, whether puzzle games, action adventure, sports, simulation or shooters; or single versus multi-player games. 

“There are some smaller studies reporting that different types of games may engage different areas in the brain, different functions of the brain… but because of the sample size we cannot trust them enough,” he says.

“For the nine and ten years old, we’ve been looking at surveys done internationally. So, these kids tend to play more fast-paced games like action, adventure and shooters that give you immediate reward rather than slow paced games.”

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