What’s the idea?
The idea, appealing to children, parents and teachers alike, is that children can improve their brains by engaging in entertaining media; in particular here we’ll talk about computer games. The fundamentals of this claim are solid. The brain is plastic and can reconfigure itself to particular tasks and environments. In fact, this is the very basis of education: we can learn to read or do mathematics, as a result of this brain plasticity plus extended exposure to particular educational tasks or environments and, in theory, computer screens are just another way of exposing the brain to those tasks or environments.
Digital ‘brain training’ is big business. From video games, to apps, to DVDs, the global market for educational digital media surpassed £1billion in 2012[i] and by 2014 had almost doubled[ii]. It’s important, then, that we look closely at the evidence here, as there’s a lot of pressure on parents and teachers to provide rewarding and stimulating digital environments for the children in their care, without exposing them to harm. Much of the research in this area looks at preventing decline in older individuals, but here we will focus on the more limited literature for children and consider what evidence there is for the beneficial effects of using computer games at home and in the classroom.
Video games designed for entertainment
Thera are two types of video games to consider: those designed for education and those designed for entertainment. Entertainment games that would be classified as ‘action games’ – including platform games and fighting games that challenge users reaction time and hand eye co-ordination – have become a focus for researchers who are trying to understand how gaming can be beneficial. Adults who play action video games, or non-users trained on action games, show improvements in multiple aspects of visual attention, including skills like localising rapid visual targets, better spatial resolution, and mental rotation[iii]. It’s believed that visual attention can be quite rapidly improved using these games, as they require users to constantly divide and shift their attention on the screen. Even relatively simple games can have substantial impact on adults. Indeed brain imaging has shown that playing a Super Mario platform game for 30 mins daily for two months resulted in increased grey matter density in areas associated with navigation, strategic planning, working memory and motor function in young adults[iv].
There’s less evidence for such effects in children, but the research that currently exists is promising. For example, 6-19 year olds who play action video games are better than their peers at tracking multiple visual objects[v].
Why are action video games so effective?
Apart from being visually engaging and typically framed as stories, action video games are thought to be effective because they’re demanding. Games not only make demands of cognitive systems such as visual attention, but also require high level hand-eye coordination and the control of multiple movements, often in parallel. Another crucial aspect of action games is that they usually provide adaptive training, that is, they gradually increase in difficulty (be it speed or complexity) as the user progresses, such that training is automatically individualised and everyone is playing at the limit of their current ability.
One thing that’s unusual about the benefits seen from playing action video games is that it seems to result in better ‘transfer’ than most training regimes: the improvements seen aren’t highly specific to the task that’s been practised. Even when researchers test something like divided visual attention, the test used is very different from the action game participants practised with. These transfer effects have led one group of researchers[vi] to suggest that playing action games enable users to ‘learn to learn’ as the games require constant adaptation to new environments and new task demands.
Video games designed for education
Of course the burgeoning brain training industry isn’t concerned with games designed for entertainment as such, but rather for educational purposes. While there is some evidence for the benefit of educational games, ironically there’s probably less than for action games designed as entertainment!
Educational computer games are typically designed to train a specific skill, such as learning letters, or developing working memory (holding and manipulating currently relevant information), and some focus on the same kinds of skills that action games train, like ignoring irrelevant distractors. In one study, 4 and 6 year old children were trained to press a key to indicate which way a fish was pointing while ignoring irrelevant fish to the sides, a classic task designed to test attention control. With training, children became better able to ignore the irrelevant fish, therefore showing more advanced attention control, with the effect of training being about half as large as two years of development between the two age points[vii].
As with action video games, educational games rely on adaptive training. For example, in a group of children with poor working memory a computerized training system resulted in substantial and sustained gains, with most children developing working memory levels appropriate for their age, though crucially this was only seen with an adaptive version of the task[viii]. We also see some transfer effects here, with computerised working memory tasks also resulting in improved performance on maths[ix] and reading[x] tasks in primary school children. Although notably, the transfer effects that seem to be such an inherent part of action video game training are not always seen with educational games[xi].
There are some major educational programmes used in schools, especially in the US, which use a computer interface (see ‘Further resources’), with an emphasis on training working memory and executive function in children with ADHD. These programmes rely on good transfer effects, and benefits have been shown on aspects of inattention, impulsivity and/or hyperactivity in children. Although ADHD is a main focus, computerized interventions have been developed to work on all sorts of problems, including language processing in children with dyslexia[xii], auditory attention in children with language impairment[xiii], and working memory in children with learning disabilities[xiv].
Do companies do any research?
The brain training industry is definitely growing more rapidly than is the supporting research. This is a concern given the claims that some companies make, and the pressure put on parents to make sure their child is playing educational games. There are companies who provide an evidence base for their claims, arguably led by Cogmed, who design games for anyone ‘held back’ by working memory issues. Cogmed provide a huge body of research available through their website which focuses on the benefits of training for children including, but not limited to, those with ADHD.
There can be a reactionary response from the older generation that any new technology young people are using must be bad for them. Notably, the reading of books is generally regarded as positive, despite being a non-social, solo activity, requiring focused visual attention on a relatively impoverished visual stimulus held at a fixed distance; two hundred years ago, elders most likely declared that too much time with books couldn’t be good for you. By contrast, online technology is more social (albeit at a distance), both in gaming and educational contexts.
With great power…
The demanding, engaging, adaptive nature of computer games in general makes them a powerful tool for education and that’s exactly why we need to better understand their effects; indeed, not doing the research is irresponsible. The bottom line is that children are going to access computer games and if they can be beneficial then they can also be harmful (see ‘Violent video games make children more violent’), so it’s crucial that we know how to provide a stimulating, rewarding and safe digital environment as computerised tasks increasingly become a feature of the education landscape.
The verdict? This is a neuro-hit, but at the moment there’s more evidence for the benefits of certain games designed for entertainment than for games designed for so-called ‘brain training’.
Some of the computerized programmes used by schools include the School of One maths programme which emphasises the individualised value of computerized training, allowing children to work at their own pace; Cogmed, which trains working memory in children ; and FastForWord, which aims to support language development, particularly in children with difficulties such as developmental dyslexia.
For the American Psychological Association’s report on the link between digital media and violence in young adults see here.
[i] SharpBrains: http://sharpbrains.com/
[iv] Kuhn, S., Gleich, T., Lorenz, R. C., Lindenberger, U., & Gallinat, J. (2014). Playing Super Mario induces structural brain plasticity: gray matter changes resulting from training with a commercial video game. Molecular Psychiatry, 19, 265–271.
[vi] Green, C. S., Pouget, A., & Bavalier, D. (2010). Improved probabilistic inference as a general learning mechanism with action video games. Current Biology, 20 (17), 1573-1579. doi: 10.1016/j.cub.2010.07.040
[vii] Rueda, R. M., Rothbart, M. K., McCandliss, B. D., Saccomanno, L., & Posner, M. I. Training, maturation, and genetic influences on the development of executive attention. (2005). PNAS, 102 (41), 14931–14936. doi: 10.1073/pnas.0506897102
[viii] Holmes, J., Gathercole, S. E., & Dunning, D. L. (2009). Adaptive training leads to sustained enhancement of poor working memory in children. Developmental Science, 12 (4), F9-15. doi: 10.1111/j.1467-7687.2009.00848.x.
[x] Loosli, S. V., Buschuel, M., Perrig, W. J., & Jaeggi, S. M. (2012). Working memory training improves reading processes in typically developing children. Child Neuropsychology, 18 (1), 62-78. doi: 10.1080/09297049.2011.575772
[xi] Owen, A. M., Hampshire, A., Grahn, J. A., Stenton, R., Dajani, S., Burns, A. S., Howard, R. J., & Ballard, C. G. (2010). Putting brain training to the test. Nature, 465 (7299), 775–778. doi:10.1038/nature09042.
[xii] Temple, E., Deutsch, G. K., Poldrack, R. A., Miller, S. L., Tallal, P., Merzenich, M. M., & Gabrieli, J. D. E. (2003). Neural deficits in children with dyslexia ameliorated by behavioural remediation: Evidence from functional MRI. PNAS, 100 (5), 2860-2865. doi: 10.1073/pnas.0030098100
[xiii] Stevens, C., Fanning, J., Coch, D., Sanders, L., & Neville, H. (2008). Neural mechanisms of selective auditory attention are enhanced by computerized training: Electrophysiological evidence from language-impaired and typically developing children. Brain Research, 1205, 55-69. doi: 10.1016/j.brainres.2007.10.108
[xiv] Söderqvist, S., Nutley, S. B., Ottersen, J., Grill, K. M., & Klingberg, T. (2012). Computerized training of non-verbal reasoning and working memory in children with intellectual disability. Frontiers in Human Neuroscience | doi.org/10.3389/fnhum.2012.00271