Archive for July, 2012

This is your brain on…games!

Sunday, July 1st, 2012

My latest blog post over at Axonify:

We live in a time when games are getting a lot of attention, and a different kind of attention than used to be the case. Until recently our post-Puritan society has tended to view game-playing as rather suspect, a mere frivolity that’s neither necessary nor desirable among us, ahem, sober-minded adults. This legacy has made us slow to appreciate the fact that games are great at engaging and motivating people…but we’re coming around, as is reflected in the coinage and increasing use of the word “gamification“. The fact is, games can be extremely effective ways to teach and learn, because, by golly, they’re fun! Fun things engage our attention, capture our interest, and stimulate our brains’ reward circuitry, all of which translates into efficient and thorough processing of information. And information that’s thoroughly processed is information that’s remembered. That’s a big part of what’s making Axonify such a success story.

That’s not all, though: it turns out that game playing not only makes things memorable, it can also improve how well our brains actually work! This recent article from the Wall Street Journal cites accumulating research showing that playing certain types of video games is actually good for your brain, leading to big improvements in perception, reaction time, motor coordination, attention, and decision-making that show up in scientific tests and brain scans. One interesting thing is that it’s the very same games we’ve all been worried about with regard to violence (“action” video games like those “first-person shooter” ones) that seem to have the largest beneficial effects on brain functioning. These action games are thought to be brain-beneficial because they increase players’ arousal and give them repeated, unpredictable and constantly varying challenges, requiring them to maintain a heightened state of focus while navigating their way toward a goal. In addition, meeting those challenges successfully results in instant and potent rewards, and it’s known that rewards are critically important for stimulating the brain plasticity that supports new learning. (Just ask your dog, and he’ll tell you that well-timed delivery of yummy treats helps him learn new tricks quickest.)

Of course, the violent content of many video games is still a source of concern, and its effects on people are still in question, so it warrants some attention. I’d add, too, that anything that strongly stimulates the brain’s reward system also has the potential to lead to addictive behaviour. When you think about it, if Junior is twenty-six and still lives in his mom’s basement because he does nothing but play video games, it’s kind of cold comfort to think that he has catlike reflexes and a razor-sharp focus of attention.

Nevertheless, the point is that games are powerful and that they can powerfully change the brain. If used appropriately, they can be a great way to help the brain do the job that its owner wants it to do: remember and respond to what’s important. And if that brain can have a little fun on its way there, well, so much the better!