Video games and science have a sordid past. They make you smarter, dumber, fat, skinny, relaxed, aggressive, and now, new research adds improved memory to that list.
A study appearing in the Journal of Neuroscience suggests that specifically three-dimensional video games can boost performance on memory tests by up to 12 percent. Researchers note that this is typically the percentage of memory function lost between the ages of 45 and 75.
“Just by playing a commercial video game and by exploring the world in it, you seem to get better in your ability to learn and remember details of other events,” Craig Stark said, in an email to Popular Science.
In the study, 69 college students (who weren’t already gamers) were split into three groups. Two groups were assigned to play either a 2D game (Angry Birds), or a 3D game (Super Mario 3D World) for 30 minutes every day over two weeks. There was also a group that didn’t play any games, to establish a baseline. Cognitive and memory tests were performed by the students before and after the two weeks. While the the control group and the participants who played the 2D game didn’t show any improvement, the scores of the 3D gamers jumped by 12 percent.
A separate group of competitive gamers were also tested on the standardized memory test. Professional 2D game competitors, who play Super Smash Bros, were compared to professional 3D competitors, who play League of Legends. In these studies, 3D games were classified as those who had a perceived depth that players could explore, rather than side-scrolling games. Results showed that League of Legends players ranked higher on average by about 10 percent, close to the non-gamer scoring.
Researchers draw their knowledge of why this might be happening from research in rats. They’ve seen before in studies that this kind of 3-dimensional, detail-rich video games stimulates the hippocampus, which controls spatial memory in the brain. Video games, in essence, can serve as practice for the brain.
“These are early days for this research,” Stark said. “But it suggests that there is something to the ‘use it or lose it’ hypothesis of cognitive function.”
The study showed promise for memory growth in college-age humans, but the team’s next step is to see if similar principles apply to fixing memory loss in older people. Stark says that he’s seen this mental exercise work in rodents, and now it’s a matter of testing the principle on humans.
“If playing video games or other means of ‘environmental enrichment’ can serve to do the same thing,” Stark said. “We’d have a real win on our hands.”