How Games Train Your Brain: The Cognitive Benefits of Action Games

How Games Train Your Brain - The Cognitive Benefits of Action Games.jpg

Unless you’ve locked yourself away in some gamer safe haven, you’ve almost certainly butt heads with the lingering misconception that gaming will ruin your brain.

I had my first run-in with this popular belief in the early nineties. I was at a birthday party. I couldn’t tell you whose birthday it was, only that this kid had Mario Kart on the SNES and that within minutes of playing, I had decided that I’d like nothing more than to spend the rest of my life shooting shells and breaking traffic regulations with Mario and his crew.

I remember begging my parents for my own system afterwards. When negotiations broke down, I got down on my knees, and when that didn’t work, I rolled around in a puddle of my own tears (I know, I was a fun kid).

Lo and behold, it worked. My mother eventually took me and my sister to Toys ‘R’ Us. She graciously bought us our very own SNES. There was just one problem though: the game cartridge we pulled out of the bag wasn’t Mario Kart.

It was Jeopardy.

My mother had bought into the same idea as every other parent on the block, that the only games worth playing were educational and utterly devoid of violence.

In recent years, however, psychological research has largely debunked this belief, finding that video games improve cognitive ability. And it’s not the educational variety that psychologists have found so beneficial. It’s the kind that most parents would least expect: action.

Let’s take a look at the psychological benefits of gaming, with a focus on action games.


Action games improve your ability to process what you see.

Psychologists have discovered that action games improve a cognitive function called contrast sensitivity. Contrast sensitivity is a fundamental part of visual processing. It’s your ability to notice minor changes in shades of gray.

In a 2009 study, psychologists took a group of people with little to no gaming experience and had them play 50 hours of video games over 10 to 12 weeks. Half of them played the beloved shooters, Unreal Tournament 2004 and Call of Duty 2. The rest played The Sims 2.

By the end of the study, participants who played action games improved their contrast sensitivity by an average of 43%. The others showed no improvements. And when they checked back on these people 2 years later, psychologists found that the improvements stuck.


Action games give you better control over your attention.

Let’s say your friends invite you out to a sports bar. The place is packed, and every wall is flashing with more TV screens than any reasonable establishment needs. You order a drink, grab your seat, and say “hey” to your friends. And then you ignore them for the rest of the night, instead, spending it glued to a single screen.

In psychology, this is called visual selective attention. It’s your ability to control how much attention you pay to the different things you see, and action gamers are usually pretty awesome at it.

Psychologists have a test called the Useful Field of Vision test (UFOV). It fills your field of vision with a bunch of distracting clutter and has you locate a quickly flashing target. Studies have found that non-gamers are much better at this test after playing action games. They’re able to filter out distractions and focus on the moving target.


Action games allow you to pay attention for longer periods of time.

Psychologists have another test called the TOVA (yes, they have a ton of tests). It stands for the Test of Variables of Attention, and it’s often used to diagnose ADHD, or Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder. It measures your attention span, impulsiveness, and reaction time.

Here’s how the TOVA works. It shows you two shapes, shape A and shape B. Whenever shape A shows up, you have to press a button as quickly as you can. And whenever shape B appears, you do nothing.

In one part of the TOVA, shape B (the one you’re supposed to do nothing for) comes up far more often than shape A (the one with the button press). Basically, you’re spending a long time doing nothing but paying attention to the screen so you can press the button as quickly as you can the few times shape A appears. To do well, you need to be able to maintain your focus for long periods of time.

In a 2013 study, psychologists had elders take this test before and after playing action games. You can probably guess what happened: they scored significantly higher after training with action games. They were able to pay attention for much longer and correctly react to shape A much more quickly.


Action games develop your executive functioning.

You might be wondering what that even means – “executive functioning”. Well, I swear I’m not just making up fancy words to impress strangers on the Internet.

Executive functioning is your ability to manage multiple mental processes at once. Let’s say you’re at the grocery store, and you spot a lady simultaneously talking on the phone, hunting for the best onion, and making sure her son isn’t sneaking snacks into the cart. You can bet that she has a pretty high level of executive functioning.

In 2012, a group of psychologists ran an experiment on people who don’t game. They gave each person a test in which he or she had to indicate the frequency of a sound and the size of a triangle, all at once. Then, they had everyone play games for 15 hours.

One group played first-person shooters. A second played Tetris. And a third didn’t play anything at all. Afterward, everyone took the test again. The people who played FPS games improved on the test significantly, while everyone else stayed the same. Playing shooters made people better at managing multiple cognitive tasks at once.


So what you’re saying is we should ban schools and have kids play Overwatch all day instead, right?

Not quite. And I’m not just saying that to keep the prepubescent out of my beloved servers.

With recent findings, psychologists are gradually erasing the stigma of video games, particularly action games. But too much of a good thing is almost always a bad thing. You know what they say, after all. Beans are great for the heart, but the more you eat, the more you, well, fart.

There’s a lot more research that needs to be done, but two things are for certain: games have been unfairly demonized, and they actually have significant psychological benefits.

Parents who completely forbid their children from gaming, well-meaning as they are, might be doing them a disservice. There’s mounting scientific evidence that video games, especially in the action genre, offer some serious cognitive advantages.

So take that, Mom.