L-R: C. Shawn Green, Adam Gazzaley, Jonathon Blow, and moderator Steve Hyman
Can a video game improve cognitive function? It is clear that, with training, one can get better at a particular task within a game. But can the benefits extend to other areas? Panelists who spoke Thursday night at the International Neuroethics Society public forum in San Diego believe the answer is yes.
Adam Gazzaley, M.D., Ph.D., founding director of the Neuroscience Imaging Center at UC San Francisco, helped create a game called NeuroRacer to test multitasking performance. Players must keep the car on the road while also following (or in some cases ignoring) various signs that appear along the way. Gazzaley looked at the multitasking “cost” for different age groups: the decline in performance when players have to pay attention to the signs instead of just keeping the car on the road. All age groups suffered a cost, with older people experiencing a greater decline than younger players. However, after a month of training in the game, 70-year-olds outperformed untrained 20-year-olds.
The more significant discovery was that the older players showed improvement in areas not directly related to the game, such as working memory. These benefits were still evident six months later.
NeuroRacer looks like a relatively simple game that could be fun to play. The problem with most brain-training or educational games, according to the panelists, is that they are not entertaining. The speakers agreed that there needs to be collaboration between the scientists and game designers. Boring games are not going to get good results; people won’t be as engaged with them.
Jonathon Blow, a game developer and fellow panelist, used the analogy of weight training versus karate lessons. A game that simply tries to “work out” one particular muscle won’t be very fun and therefore won’t get significant results. But if the game is a bit more complex and incorporates multiple skills, it is more likely to have real-world effects. Blow said that trying to make a video game that draws from a physics textbook would be far less valuable than creating a game that intuitively delivers physics concepts, and then using a textbook to supplement the game. That is easier said than done. “Scientists and game developers don’t always work well together,” Gazzaley said.
The speakers also stressed that video games are wide-ranging and can’t all be lumped together, just as all foods or all drugs are not a single entity. To say that video games are “bad” or “good” for you is unfair and misleading.
There is still much to be learned when it comes to neurogaming. “I feel like this field is in its infancy,” Gazzaley said. But as NeuroRacer showed, there is potential. And it’s significant, considering panelist C. Shawn Green, Ph.D., an assistant professor at the University of Wisconsin, half-joked that “the adult brain doesn’t want to learn anything.”