Improving memory: Some digital games may help

Evan Walker
Evan Walker TheMediTary.Com |
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Playing digital puzzle games could benefit cognitive health. BONNINSTUDIO/Stocksy
  • Researchers recently conducted a study to see how playing different types of video games impacts memory capabilities in both younger and older adults.
  • They compared how well they performed at certain tasks that tested both their working memory and ability to ignore distractions to what types of video games the participants reported playing.
  • They learned that older adults who play digital puzzle games had better concentration abilities compared to older adults who either do not play digital games or play a different type of game.
  • Alternatively, younger adults who reported playing strategy games had a superior working memory compared to those who did not report any history of playing games.

When people get older, it is not uncommon for them to experience difficulties with memory, particularly with working memory.

According to the National Library of Medicine, working memory refers to “the small amount of information that can be held in mind and used in the execution of cognitive tasks.”

For example, when someone gives instructions to complete a task, the person would rely on their working memory to keep the instructions in mind for the duration of the task.

Researchers often look into methods of improving memory capabilities, and one often-researched area includes video gaming.

Scientists from the University of York, England suspected that the type of video game people play could impact working memory and people’s ability to ignore distractions.

They saw greater performance in older adults who played digital puzzle games and younger adults who played strategy games.

The researchers published their findings in the journal Heliyon.

Since aging has a negative impact on working memory, the researchers in this study wanted to test whether certain types of games are connected with improvements in memory among younger and older adults.

The researchers analyzed data from 482 participants for the study. The majority of the participants (297) were females. The participants’ ages ranged from 18 to 81, and the scientists placed them in either the younger adult group (ages 18–30) or the older adult group (ages 60–81).

The participants reported their gaming habits and included details such as how often they played digital games, the type of games they played, and how much time they spent playing. The researchers counted all digital games, including arcade, PC, console, and mobile games.

Another factor the participants had to report on was when they started playing video games — such as during the past year, decade, etc.

The researchers further divided the younger and older groups into either a non-player category or categories based on the gaming type they reported playing mostly—action, strategy, or puzzle.

Assessing working memory

The next thing the participants had to do was complete an online working memory assessment. The assessment checked for the following conditions:

The “no distraction” part of the assessment gauged how well the participants could remember the location of red circles that showed up on a grid for a short amount of time. After briefly showing the red circles, the grid went blank, and the participants had to remember where the red circles appeared.

With the “encoding distraction” aspect, the researchers checked this by showing both red and yellow circles on the assessment. The participants had to focus on the location of the red circles only and recall the location on the blank grid.

The quiz had an extra component to check for the “delay distraction” condition. In addition to having the yellow circles, the yellow circles also appeared during a delay between the red circles disappearing from the grid and filling in the spots on the empty grid.

The results of the data analysis showed that older adults who reported playing digital puzzle games had a higher working memory capacity than the older adults who played either the other game types or did not play games at all.

The research also showed that older adults who play digital puzzle games could ignore distractions better than other older adults.

“Puzzle games for older people had this surprising ability to support mental capabilities to the extent that memory and concentration levels were the same as a 20 year-olds who had not played puzzle games,” says lead study author Dr. Joe Cutting, who works at the University of York’s Department of Computer Science.

On the other hand, younger adults who played strategy games showed a greater working memory capacity compared to young adults who played action games.

This came as a bit of a surprise to the researchers because with previous research, “playing action games has been associated with superior performance in various measures of attention, perception, and executive function.”

However, breaking down elements in the games to see whether they have purely action or strategy elements showed that strategy games had the upper hand in terms of working memory in younger adults.

“It instead seems to be the strategy elements of the games — planning and problem solving, for example — that stimulates better memory and attention in young people,” comments author Dr. Fiona McNab, from the University of York’s Department of Psychology.

“We don’t see this same effect in older adults, however, and more research is needed to understand why this is,” she adds.

Dr. Rehan Aziz, a geriatric psychiatrist at Jersey Shore University Medical Center in Neptune, New Jersey, spoke to Medical News Today about the study.

“This is a very interesting study in that it looked at the effects of different types of video games, including puzzle, strategy, and action, on working memory,” he said.

Dr. Aziz touched on working memory before launching into his impressions of the study.

“Working memory is one of our most complex memory systems. We use it when we are using memories or experiences that we are holding in our heads for everyday tasks, like mental math, following instructions, problem-solving, learning, and other things,” he explained.

Dr. Aziz was surprised that strategy and action games had no benefits for older adults.

“The striking aspect of this study was its finding that among older adults, there was greater working memory capacity for people who played puzzle games, but not strategy or action games, compared to people who did not play any video games,” he said.

Dr. Aziz recommends aerobic exercises, maintaining social connections, and doing activities that stimulate the brain (such as sudoku, crossword puzzles, and reading) for older adults concerned about memory loss.

Dr. Stella Panos, a neuropsychologist and director of neuropsychology at the Pacific Neuroscience Institute in Santa Monica, California, also spoke with MNT. She emphasized that more research is needed before drawing any definitive conclusions.

“It is important to note that this study is an observational study and does not necessarily mean that game playing leads to better working. It may be that game preference varies by cognitive ability and age.”
— Dr. Stella Panos

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