Monday, February 27, 2012

World of Warcraft builds better brains in older adults

Playing the massively multiplayer online role playing game World of Warcraft has now been shown to produce positive cognitive changes in adult gamers.  In a study currently in press with the journal Computers in Human Behavior, researchers at North Carolina University's Gains Through Gaming Lab found that adults (ages 60-77) in the experimental group who played the game for approximately 14 hours over a two week period had significantly improved focus and spatial orientation skills over those in the control group who played no WoW.  In addition, the study found that the greatest improvements were shown in those participants whose initial abilities were ranked among the lowest of the group, suggesting that adults with lower cognitive abilities may benefit the most from any cognitive training regime.

Multi-tasking World of Warcraft.  Screenshot by Joi Ito.
WoW was selected for the study particularly for the demanding amount of multi-tasking involved in gameplay.  The researchers found that even though "novice and expert players proceeded through the game in different ways, all players engaged in a number of demanding cognitive processes such as rapidly switching their attention between sub-tasks requiring different cognitive abilities, necessitating effortful attentional control. This confirmed that playing World of Warcraft was a cognitive complex task, both for players experiencing the game for the first time and for those who have been playing for years."

These findings might come as a welcome surprise to some of WoW's reported 10 million subscribers, but this study is just one among a growing number confirming the fact that even purely-entertainment based games can have valuable cognitive effects for players.  Several previous studies focusing on younger gamers have shown that games like the first-person shooter Medal of Honor or action games like Grand Theft Auto 3 and Marvel vs Capcom can improve certain mental skills like visual attention and the ability to mentally rotate 3-dimensional objects.  Older gamers, too, have previously been shown to benefit from games.  A 2008 study published in the journal Psychology and Aging showed that adults playing the real-time strategy game Rise of Nations had improved  task switching, working memory, visual short-term memory and reasoning.

Or course, we are still a long way away from being able to put away our books and lower our pencils in favor of video games as our primary source of mental stimulation, but for older gamers, at least, this latest study provides just one more reason for all the Old Granda Hardcores out there to keep getting their game on!

The corrected proofs of the study, titled "Individual differences in response to cognitive training: Using a multi-modal, attentionally demanding game-based intervention for older adults," can be found here, although it seems that the study is currently behind a paywall: http://dx.doi.org/10.1016/j.chb.2012.01.012.

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