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Playing Video Games When You're A Kid Is Good For Your Brain, Study Finds

Ryan Ford 8 Oct 2020

I'm sure that between the fights over who gets the controller and giving up the single TV screen in the house for hours at a time, my parents must have wondered what ever possessed them to buy a video game system for my brother and me in the first place.

Given that, at the time, little was known about how video games might affect development, my folks must also have worried that all that time spent questing after kidnapped princesses and fending off invading hordes of aliens or zombies was probably rotting my brain.

The good news is that lots of study has been done on video gaming and kids since then and one of the latest shows that it's actually good for the brain — and it keeps paying off for a long time afterwards.

It's true: playing video games as a kid can actually help your cognitive development.

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You just might not see it at the time. But when kids are engrossed in another world on the screen, controller gripped tightly in their hands, they're training their brains and building up cognitive skills without even realizing it.

At least, that's according to researchers at Barcelona's Universitat Oberta de Catalunya, who recently published a study in Frontiers in Human Neuroscience that examined some of the cognitive effects of gaming.

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It wasn't the result that the researchers set out to prove, however.

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Rather, the study gathered together 27 people between the ages of 18 and 40 — some of whom had experience with video gaming, and some who didn't — to see if combining video games with transcranial magnetic stimulation could improve cognitive performance.

Transcranial magnetic stimulation is basically a non-invasive method to "produce electrical currents in underlying neural populations and modify their activity," explained UOC PhD Marc Palaus in a statement.

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For one month, those 27 participants trained their brains on Super Mario 64.

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Not a bad way to contribute to science, amirite? The participants were tested on various cognitive tasks before starting the training, after 10 straight days of playing the game for 1.5 hours a day, and then again 15 days after stopping the gaming.

One group of the participants also underwent the transcranial magnetic stimulation to see if that would have any effect on their performance on the cognitive tasks compared to the rest of the participants.

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Turns out, that stimulation process didn't help much.

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In the end, after all that game training, those who had undergone the brain stimulation performed just as well as those who hadn't.

The more interesting result was that some had tested better on the cognitive tasks before any of the game training or stimulation than others, something the researchers tried to nail down a reason for. After ruling out age and gender differences, they found one common theme in those who had performed well: they had been gamers as kids.

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That's right, even for those who hadn't picked up a controller in years, cognitive benefits remained.

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"People who were avid gamers before adolescence, despite no longer playing, performed better with the working memory tasks, which require mentally holding and manipulating information to get a result," Palaus said in a statement. "People who played regularly as children performed better from the outset in processing 3D objects, although these differences were mitigated after the period of training in video gaming, when both groups showed similar levels."

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And although they didn't get the results they were looking for, the researchers are encouraged by their findings.

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"Video games are a perfect recipe for strengthening our cognitive skills, almost without our noticing," Palaus said.

He also added that kids need not play 3D platform games like Super Mario 64 to see the benefits — the games just need to have elements that make you want to keep playing, and that present a constant challenge.

"These two things are enough to make it an attractive and motivating activity, which, in turn, requires constant and intense use of our brain's resources," said Palaus.

h/t: Frontiers in Human Neuroscience, Universitat Oberta de Catalunya

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