What’s in a Game? How video games can boost cognitive function

(ivanko80 / Adobestock)

We’ve all heard it before — the idea that video games are harmful to the development of children’s minds; that they cause them to act out and have violent thoughts. This school of thought has been prevalent since the Columbine shootings in 1999, when many believed that the shooters’ actions were inspired by their enjoyment of the video game “Doom.” The American Psychological Association still maintains that there is a connection, based on a study the group performed in 2000.

In recent years, though, this connection between games and violence has been questioned—and some have even discovered that video games can be beneficial for children’s development, as opposed to harmful.

Gaming as an Educational Tool

A 2023 study from the Entertainment Software Association shows 76% of parents in the United States play video games with their children at least a few times a year, both because it is a great bonding opportunity and because it helps them monitor what their children are playing.

“Video games aren’t like other passive forms of entertainment. They require kids to think, solve problems and work to achieve something,” says Aubrey Quinn, senior vice president of the association, and a mother of three who has seen firsthand how video games may affect a child’s development. “They teach players how to dust themselves off after they lose a game and try again. Kids might be learning practical math or reading or language skills while moving through worlds and unlocking achievements, but they also are learning technology and engineering skills that are applicable to countless career opportunities. In fact, we know that teenage girls who play video games are three times as likely to pursue a degree and career in a STEM field than their non-game playing peers.”

And though gaming companies have a reason to argue in favor of their technology, others also agree. A study published in the Journal of the American Medical Association (JAMA) Network Open in October 2022 also notes a connection between playing video games and increased cognitive performance. According to the study, children who played video games for three or more hours per day performed better on memory and impulse control -related tasks than children who did not play video games. The fast-paced, goal-oriented nature of many games can help to hone children’s critical thinking and problem-solving skills at a formative age.

Gaming as a Social Tool

Video games can also help improve fine motor skills, as well as reduce the social isolation that people with disabilities often experience by connecting them through video games, according to AbleGamers Charity, a nonprofit focused on making games more accessible for that audience.

Many children and teenagers, including Quinn’s then 16-year-old son, also experienced the social benefits from thriving online gaming communities amid pandemic isolation.

“I am so grateful his high school had an esports team,” Quinn recalls. “Now that those kids are all in college in different states, they still play together online. Rather than just texting or liking each other’s social posts, they are working together — across the country — in a very healthy competitive environment. And even though he’s in college out west, he gets online to play games every now and then with his 10-year-old sister in Virginia.”

Safe Gaming

Despite the great social opportunities, it’s still important for parents to monitor their children’s online activity, without being overbearing.

Shelley Delayne, the “Chief Mom” at Pinwheel, which makes kid-safe smartphones that encourage online safety, suggests that parents try out some of the same gaming-related social programs that their children are using, such as the messaging app Discord, to get a feel for the environment and a better sense of what they should watch out for when their children socialize with others online.

“It’s the process of being collaborative with kids so they understand that they can explore but are not ashamed or afraid to come to you if something bad happens,” she notes. “The parent should come from a place of being consistent with how they handle their child’s physical life and digital life.”

Quinn also suggests using parental controls, which can restrict or “filter games by age rating, manage time spent playing, control spending and limit who their children can and can’t communicate with within games,” Quinn says.

Mental Development Video Games

“Edutainment” games designed to teach children about the world, such as Humongous Entertainment’s slate of point-and-click games, have always existed. More recently, the FDA authorized a video game for the first time: EndeavorRx, meant to improve attention function in children with ADHD. The game was developed by Akili Interactive Labs.

“Akili set out to develop the video game treatments, recognizing that our cognitive health is often overlooked as compared to our physical health, yet it has a significant impact on our lives,” explains Dr. Scott Kollins, Akili’s chief medical officer. “The technology behind the products was developed at [University of California San Francisco] and first studied in older adults with cognitive decline. It has since been studied across more than 20 clinical trials, including in ADHD, depression, autism spectrum disorder, multiple sclerosis, and more.”


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