Other studies have had complimentary results. In 2014, for instance, a study by education psychologists at the University of Florida found that the popular 3D-puzzle game Portal 2 improved respondents’ scores at basic cognitive tests more than the heavily marketed “brain trainer” Lumosity. Not all games, however, have the same effect. West’s research indicates that the “action video game” players were encouraging “response learning strategies” that rely on a different portion of the brain called the caudate nucleus. Over-reliance on the caudate nucleus can be detrimental to the hippocampus, which supports spatial memory — the goal is a balance between the two. And many modern games, action or otherwise, often furnish players with a mini-map and guided waypoint markers, creating a spatial situation where “the game’s doing the cognitive work for you,” he said.
In clinical settings, advances in video game technology could also make researching and applying these techniques much easier. Roger Anguera is the director of interactive media at Neuroscape, a neuroscience center at the University of California, San Francisco, that focuses on using “cutting edge technologies” to assess people’s brains. Anguera’s specialty is virtual reality, which is widely seen as the future of video games. One of the most practical applications of VR, Anguera says, is in simulations and games that precisely target and train the parts of the brain that West’s Super Mario 64 studies focused on. In one simulator, Anguera uses VR and motion-tracking to create an immersive VR “neighborhood” that patients can walk around in and observe. The subject is given 10 minutes to explore the neighborhood, taking note of landmarks and “errand” locations, like a coffee shop or post office. Then, Anguera spawns their digital avatar in a different location and asks them to complete a task, like picking up a coffee or delivering a letter, and then tracks how efficient their path is around the environment, adjusting the complexity of assignments and neighborhoods to test the subject’s recollection.
“The game will constantly adapt its difficulty to how well you’re doing, so that it’s always pushing you,” Anguera said, but unlike Super Mario 64, it allows researchers to control every variable and tailor the subject’s experiences, keeping them challenged but not overtaxed in order to improve the brain’s plasticity and vigor. Neuroscape works with patients and participants of all ages, but the core idea behind its therapies could have dramatic effects on how we deal with age. Dr. Adam Gazzaley, Neuroscape’s founder and executive director, said that he sees interactive experiences like Anguera’s closed-loop, adaptable video games as a way to change our brains for the better without relying on molecular-based therapies like drugs.
“We think it’s going to be an entirely new type of medicine,” Gazzaley said. Experiential treatments, he said, are ideally preventative care rather than cures but, if applied correctly as we age, could drastically increase our quality of life.
“All of it is on the table as far as I’m concerned,” Gazzaley said. “Depression, dementia, the host of cognitive impairments that are associated with aging as well as the other factors of purpose and loneliness also have potential for solutions with this approach.”
“That’s a really empowering experience, to master something, even though society doesn’t expect you to be good at anything anymore.”
Turning digital entertainment into clinical therapy may be a fledgling science, but games can already address the questions of purpose and loneliness that Gazzaley mentions. As people age, it’s also common to feel like parts of your life are slipping away. Joints get stiff, making sports harder; common tasks become more difficult. The psychological toll that these struggles can take is steep. Kathrin Gerling, Ph.D., an assistant professor of computer science at KU Leuven in Belgium whose work focuses on human-computer interaction, including accessible game design for older adults, says that gaming can help restore a sense of agency and accomplishment to aging adults.
“If you think about [an elder] care facility, we remove any kind of challenge from that environment,” Gerling said. “If we can give someone the opportunity to be competent, or even competitive at something… Say you have someone in their eighties who plays games for the first time, and they find out they’re actually good at something [again], that’s a really empowering experience, to master something, even though society doesn’t expect you to be good at anything anymore.”