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Video Game Play May Not Boost Brain Power After All

On this charged issue, a team of researchers comes to the opposite conclusion of some of their colleagues.
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Halo Wars. (Photo: Microsoft Game Studios)

Halo Wars. (Photo: Microsoft Game Studios)

While the evidence continues to mount linking violent video game play with aggressive thoughts and behavior, a more benign counter-narrative has gradually taken hold. It suggests that, whatever their undesirable emotional impacts, playing these games sharpens your brain.

In other words, they’re not only fun—they enhance your thinking power! If that sounds too good to be true, just-published research in the journal Psychological Science suggests that indeed it is.

In “direct contrast” to other recent studies, a research team led by University of Oregon psychologist Nash Unsworth reports the link between video game experience and “fundamental cognitive abilities” is “weak to nonexistent.”

When taking into account the entire spectrum of heavy, light, and moderate players, the correlation between video game experience and cognitive abilities are "weak to null."

It points to flaws in those previous studies, including “relatively small sample sizes” and skewed designs, in which the most active players are compared with people who don’t play at all.

When taking into account the entire spectrum of heavy, light, and moderate players, the correlation between video game experience and cognitive abilities are “weak to null,” the researchers report. Their argument is strengthened by the fact that they measured cognitive abilities in a variety of ways, and looked at people playing a wide range of games (violent and non-violent alike).

Unsworth and his colleagues describe two experiments. In the first, they re-analyze data from a 2014 study featuring 198 adults between the ages of 18 and 35. Participants reported “the number of hours per week that they had played various types of video games over the last year,” including “first-person shooter games, action games, real-time strategy games, turn-based and puzzle games, role-playing games and music games.”

Each took a series of tests designed to measure working memory (that is, how much information you can retain in your conscious mind at a given time), fluid intelligence (how well you do at abstract thinking), and attention control (including the famous Stroop test, in which they were instructed to name the color a word was presented in, not the color its letters spelled out).

The researchers first mimicked the earlier studies, focusing on the heaviest players of first-person-shooter games such as Halo and Call of Duty and comparing them to people with no game experience at all. Like those studies, their results showed “video game players outperformed non-gamers on one measure of working memory, all of the fluid intelligence measures, and some of the attention-control measures.”

However, looking at the data on players of all levels, and games of all types, they found “the association between video-game playing and cognitive abilities are weak to nonexistent.” A second study, featuring 466 people between the ages of 18 and 30, “largely replicated” those results.

So, sorry, kids—you can’t get away with avoiding your homework by claiming that playing Grand Theft Auto V is making you smarter. That conclusion now seems based on flawed research.

The good news is, if these findings are wrong, and all that time spent in front of the console really has increased your brain power, you should be able to come up with some unusually clever, more persuasive rationale.

Findings is a daily column by Pacific Standard staff writer Tom Jacobs, who scours the psychological-research journals to discover new insights into human behavior, ranging from the origins of our political beliefs to the cultivation of creativity.