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Can you get smarter by playing games?

written by Shane "Geek" Lundberg February 8, 2018

It’s a controversial subject and there are studies and researchers favoring opposing viewpoints. But studies showing positive effects of video games on players seem to be prevailing. Numerous studies have been done in recent years, and many of them conclude that gaming can boost different cognitive abilities.

Video games were even incorporated into a learning program at The Quest to Learn New York middle school. And the Q2L isn’t the only school that adopted video games in a classroom.

So why video games?

In the past decade or so, leading educational researchers have discovered that games allow for some of the richest learning and training experiences:

  • Games ask us to collaborate with others and learn by doing
  • Games let us know right away if we are failing or succeeding and prompt us to learn and “iterate” after a failure
  • Games seem to stimulate a range of brain functions

Not all video games are equally beneficial, though. And “video game” is a too broad term, as there are so many different types of games.

So let’s see what researchers have to say about the effects of different game genres.


Tetris, jigsaw, sudoku, word match—it is a common knowledge now that these brain twisters do more than just kill our time.

Newer entrants, games where the player matches similar items to explode them—a good example is a free board game Toy Crush—these games make us work out more than just moving our thumbs.

It has been shown that games of this sort ask for problem-solving skills, good memory, spatial reasoning, and attention to detail and can boost brain function and IQ.

However, there is an opposing camp.

“It’s been found that the benefit [of puzzle games] is restricted to the particular task that is trained for. You may become better at solving this particular kind of puzzle… But the evidence does not support claims about ‘boosting general cognitive ability’ that we sometimes read about,” says Lydia Yee, an assistant psychology professor at the Education University of Hong Kong. Yee says that puzzles are far removed from real-world tasks.

Let’s hold with rushing to conclusions. Is there more to it?

Sandbox and building games

A study from the University of Glasgow has linked academic achievement with playing games like Minecraft. They have seen the game’s positive effect on communication ability, adaptability, and resourcefulness in adult learners.

“Modern video games often require players to be adaptable and resourceful and finding multiple ways of accomplishing a task. The way games are designed often encourages critical thinking and reflective learning commonly cited as desirable attributes in graduates.”

3D video games

3D games are so realistic. For this reason, maybe they are great training tools?

There’s actually evidence 3D games can increase our memory’s capacity.

Following a study, researchers from the University of California concluded “may provide our brain with meaningful stimulation… and players were better on follow-up memory tasks.”


Quite old but still true: A 2014 study by German researchers published in Molecular Psychiatry, along with the MRI scans, suggested that playing Super Mario caused an increase in the size of brain regions.

“The platforming aspects (jumping from place to place, avoiding projectiles, moving around obstacles, etc.) of some games can also improve motor skills and reaction time.”

Role-Playing Games (RPGs)

The science tells us storytelling is one of the most distinctive features of RPGs and it is known to activate our brains. And no need to be a scientist to understand that playing RPGs cultivates creativity in a person.

These games focus on player-driven choices, dialogue options, and the consequences of player actions. Thus the cognitive skills that are trained while playing RPGs are problem-solving, strategy, and reasoning.

Real-Time Strategy (RTS)

Video games that depend on strategy can boost a person’s brain flexibility, which the researchers in Britain described as “a cornerstone of human intelligence.” Players train their prioritizing and multitasking skills and learn to adapt to changing situations.

Games like StarCraft, Age of Empires, or World of Warcraft all challenge a player to think ahead, think smart, and think together (if it’s co-op).

Action and MOBA games

Studies conducted at the DC Labs at York University found that some action-strategy video games can act similar to IQ tests. The researchers observed a correlation between performance in the strategic game League of Legends and performance in standard IQ tests. The better gamers were at playing, the more their intelligence score, it found.

Looks like because such games as League of Legends and DOTA 2 combine strategic thinking with the need for a quick reaction, they boost and train up particular cognitive skills.

Shooter games

During the studies conducted at the same DC Labs at York University, the performance-boosting effects were not found when studying first-person shooters. Some people use Aiming.Pro to improve their first person shooter performance.

Another study, though, found that action games like Call of Duty increased the capacity to learn compared with the gamers who played non-action games. And there is a research suggesting games like Call of Duty and Halo have been linked to improved vision and boosted multitasking, attention, and accuracy.

In conclusion

Let’s remember: Excessive video game playing, much like any excessive intake of the best medication, can lead to adverse effects. So do play video games, but please enjoy them in moderation!

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