playing games sharpens brains

Move over and make room for a few retirees at the clanking, banging, roaring games in the local arcade. Recent studies suggest action video games can improve visual acuity, mental flexibility and in physical coordination for senior citizens:

Vision improves after playing games with bad guys popping on and off the screen daring players to shoot them for points. “Far from being harmful to the eyesight, as some had feared, action games such as Counter-Strike, Call of Duty or Left 4 Dead provide excellent training for what doctors call contrast sensitivity. Contrast sensitivity is the ability to notice tiny changes in shades of gray against a uniform background and is critical to everyday activities such as night driving and reading. It often degrades with age,” reported Brain in the News about a study published in Nature Neuroscience.

Previously doctors only offered glasses or laser surgery to improve this aspect of vision. This study shows that even without those corrections, the brain can make better use of whatever information is received from the retina, reported Daphne Bavelier, a professor at the University of Rochester in New York State and the study’s leading researcher.
The study compared the contrast sensitivity of hard-core action game players with those who preferred less rapid-fire fare. Action buffs were found to be 50 percent more efficient at detecting contrast. Wondering if vision improved with play or if individuals became action game players because they had better acuity, Bavelier asked two groups of non-action players to play the games for 50 hours. One group played Call of Duty, the other a game bereft of action.

“We found that the people in the first group improved by 43 percent and the other group not at all,” she said. Plus, the effects of the training remained for months, even years after the training. At this time Bavelier does not see any point at which the action games become detrimental to the person – except “for your social life, perhaps,” she suggested.
But who can have a social life if cognitive skills have disappeared? Another study covered by Brain in the News reports that playing a strategy video game appears to improve the cognitive skills that tend to decline with age.

Typically, older adults fail in mental skills such as “executive control – or the planning, scheduling, working memory, dealing with ambiguity, multitasking and switching between tasks,” said principal investigator Arthur Kramer, a psychology professor at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. He hypothesized that strategy games “in which players must juggle many competing obligations – might engage all those brain functions simultaneously in a fun and motivating way.” The researchers chose the computer game Rise of Nations with multiple paths of victory, including conquering competing powers militarily and building several notable structures to obtain points. After five weeks with a total of 24 hours of game time, players scored significantly better than non-players on standard tests of task-switching, working memory and reasoning ability. The study found that playing the game paralleled improvements in mental functioning.

Another study focused especially on senior citizens. In that study, researchers saw improved coordination and visual perception when Gramps played Halo or Call of Duty. With that in mind – despite the lack of further studies in the field – several companies now sell “brain games” to stave off dementia or the effects of aging, Brain in the News reports.

The final verdict awaits further studies, but meanwhile having a few action games around retirement home might provide a bit of variety from the weekly games of Bingo.
(Joan Hershberger is a reporter at the News-Times. E-mail her at