Strategy Video Game Improves Brain Function in Elderly

by Aalok Mehta

February 13, 2009

When it comes to “senior moments,” a little bit of megalomania might be just what the doctor ordered.

A new study of people in their 60s and 70s has found that playing a strategy video game focused on conquering the world appears to improve some of the cognitive skills that naturally decline during aging.

“The reason we started looking at strategy games is because older adults show great difficulty in particular areas … known as executive control,” says principal investigator Arthur Kramer, a psychology professor at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. “These include planning, scheduling, working memory, dealing with ambiguity, multitasking and switching between tasks.”

Kramer and his colleagues hypothesized that strategy games, in which players must juggle many competing obligations, might engage all those brain functions simultaneously in a fun and motivating way.

After considering several options, the researchers opted to test their theory by using the computer game Rise of Nations, in which players guide the economic, political and scientific development of a budding civilization. The game offers multiple paths of victory, including conquering competing powers militarily, building several notable structures known as wonders and obtaining a certain number of points.

The researchers found that people who played the game for about 24 hours over five weeks scored significantly better than a group of nonplayers on standard tests of task-switching, working memory and reasoning ability.

None of the study participants who played the game found it difficult or frustrating enough to drop out, and most showed substantial improvements in their game-playing skill. Also encouraging, Kramer says, is that people who tended to get better at the game also tended to show larger improvements in their mental functioning.

“The results are very promising,” he says. “They suggest that with very little training you can get a very large effect across a variety of neuropsychological tests.”

The study appears in the December issue of the journal Psychology and Aging.

First time in older adults

The new study is hardly the first to look at the potential brain-enhancing effect of video games. Recent studies have shown that first-person shooter games such as Halo or Call of Duty improve coordination and visual perception. And several companies are now selling “brain games” touted to stave off dementia or the effects of aging, some with little solid data to back up those assertions.

But Kramer’s work is unique in many respects and may go a long way toward answering some long-standing questions about video games, says Robert West, a professor of psychology at Iowa State University who was not involved in Kramer’s research.

 “I haven’t really seen other work that has used this kind of strategy game,” West says. “It’s one of the first to demonstrate this effect on executive function.” And it presents some of the only data on older adults, as opposed to college-age participants, he adds.

Also, although practicing individual brain tasks can improve specific test scores, “those tests can be boring and it’s sometimes hard to get people to do them,” West says. “So this study might affect how people view training in senior adults.”

Research-wise, it is far too early for senior citizens to rush out and purchase a copy of a strategy video game just to improve their cognition.

Some vision-training programs have shown practical benefits, such as for driving, West says. But the authors of this study are not yet ready to say the same for video games, since they took only took standard lab measurements.

“It would be interesting to see how this generalized to real-world situations,” West says.