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Surprising Science

Video Games Don’t Sharpen Mental Skills After All

Hide this study from your parents. Recent research suggests that the connection between video games and enhancing cognitive abilities is “weak to nonexistent.”

I’d like to think that my free time spent playing video games isn’t turning my brain to mush or having a detrimental effect on my emotional intelligence, and some scientists would agree with me. To which I would like to say, “See Dad! Video games aren’t a waste of time.” But the research on the topic has become a bit muddied. Studies have gone back and forth on the issue, debating their merits, and questioning whether video games really do have the ability to sharpen your cognitive skills.

Tom Jacobs from Pacific Standard highlights yet another study, published in the journal Psychological Science, which suggests that the connection between video games and enhancing cognitive abilities is “weak to nonexistent.”

Psychologist Nash Unsworth and his team of researchers reference previous studies, criticizing them for having “relatively small sample sizes” as well as debating the efficiency of their designs. Unsworth constructed two experiments where “subjects performed a number of working memory, fluid intelligence, and attention-control measures and filled out a questionnaire about their video-game experience.”

In the first experiment, the researchers mimicked an earlier study that pitted seasoned video game players against non-players. Each participant took a series of tests measuring abstract thinking, working memory, and attention control, which was measured by the famous Stroop test, where participants must name the color a word is written in — not the color that’s spelled out. The researchers found that the previous study’s results rung true in their reproduction. They wrote that the “experienced video-game players outperformed nonplayers on several cognitive-ability measures.”

But in a second experiment, comprised of 466 people that measured players of all levels, they found the association between play and cognition didn’t hold up with their analysis. The researchers wrote, “When analyses examined the full range of subjects at both the task level and the latent-construct level, nearly all of the relations between video-game experience and cognitive abilities were near zero.” They measured cognitive abilities among people who played violent and non-violent video games alike, and the correlation between video-game play and enhanced mental skills was “weak to null.”

The researchers concluded:

“These results cast doubt on recent claims that playing video games leads to enhanced cognitive abilities.”

Jane McGonigal, on the other hand, has been the spokesperson for the merits of video games, and how they can help us make big changes within our lives — beyond mental sharpness. She’s spoken many times on how we can help improve our personal well-being through play with others:

Read more at Pacific Standard.

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