Four Ways in Which Platformers Boost Your Brain


In short: This week we came across a paper that looks at how playing 3D platformer games improves your brain. The researchers found that 30 minutes of Super Mario 64 for 2 months changed the participant brains and reinforced areas known to be affected in mental health problems. The researchers suggest that strengthening these areas with games might protect people against common mental disorders.

We are constantly looking at the literature to see what bits of games give you the most brain health for your playing time. This week we came across a great paper by Simone Kühn and a few of her colleagues from the Max Plank Institute for Human Development in Berlin. She made the observation that games are a really intense training of quite a range of mental skills. Since we know the brain is plastic and changes in response to what you do with it and what you learn she and her collaborators looked around the literature to see if anyone had looked at that. They found that nobody had put people in a scanner before and after gaming and seen what actually happens to the brain. To our delight they decided to do just that. 

They posted adverts on newspapers and the internet and got 48 healthy people to take part. They randomly assigned 24 of them to playing Super Mario 64 on the DS and 24 to just do whatever it is they normally did. There were 17 women in each group and the mean age was 24, just in case you were thinking these were all teenage boys playing games.

They chose Super Mario because platformers and games in general that use immersive 3D environments and/or that use visual puzzles have shown to have the biggest effect on things like attention, memory, planning and strategy. They liked Super Mario for the project because it featured a 3D 3rd person view on the top screen and a bird's eye view on the bottom screen. These two views train different brain networks according to their previous research done just looking at people that play games.

The results were that the grey matter grew in the players but not in the passive participants. The particular areas were:

The hippocampus (an area important for memory)

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The dorsolateral prefrontal cortex: an area that is important in strategic planning among other stuff.

 

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And the cerebellum which may contribute to navigating in space and how quick and accurate movements are 

 

 

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As a whole the training also had the effect of allowing the players to have a better strategy when finding their way both in the game and in real-life tests the researchers did.

Cool, but what does it all mean?

As promised here the four ways in which Super Mario can Supercharge your brain:

  1. It improves the bits of the brain that help you find your way around most effectively
  2. It helps you grow a more splendid hippocampus to give you better memory
  3. It stimulates the bits of your brain than help you with performing quick and accurate actions, which will improve your pool skills
  4. It will enhance brain bits that make you a better strategist so you'll be a better armchair coach/manager

Now seriously

It is not just Super Mario, obviously. Games that use an immersive 3D world and that rely on the player learning quick and accurate responses to what happens in the game world, that also feature a bird's eye view of the game world will probably have the same effect.

This is important because these type of games could be used to counteract known risk factors for mental disorders such as smaller hippocampus and prefrontal cortex volume in, for example, post-traumatic stress disorder, depression, schizophrenia and dementia.

We would need to do much more research to see if this would be effective for prevention or treatment. From our point of view this will guide our development of future games for prevention and treatment of these conditions.

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