Cognitive Benefits of Video Games

Short TED talk as an introduction to the field presented by Daphne Bavelier

Cognitive abilities such as attention, memory and certain executive functions improve with moderate gaming. In the current generation, gaming is continuing to grow as an industry and more individuals will be playing. Previously, studies focused on the harmful effects such as aggression and addiction. However, new researches are emerging, studying the benefits instead. In general, video game players (VGPs) tend to be outperforming non-video game players (NVGPs) in certain areas such as attention. When engaged in high action oriented games, VGPs can allocate their attention, as there are many different cues and signals going on during the game. [1] Attention also relates with visual changes. VGPs are becoming more efficient with their visual abilities. Their better eye movements correspond with better performance in visually demanding tasks. EEG scans showed that both parietal and occipital cortex, areas involved with sensory and visual processing, have increased synaptic current. [2] Lastly, there are improvements in memory, specifically visual and spatial memory. Due to more experiences with video games, it allows faster processing and better visual short-term memory. [3] The plasticity of the brain is a common aspect for all the better cognitive functions of VGPs. These benefits also apply to casual gamers, to those who play on the Internet, or perhaps casually on their mobile devices. Additionally, studies now find these changes apply to older adults. Presently, health professions use video games in rehabilitation and other medical studies like concussion.


The most consistent cognitive improvement demonstrated by VGPs is their superior attention. Attention is important in helping individuals focus on the relevant information while ignoring distracters. Better attention can influence memory, reaction time and so on. In a high action oriented video game, VGPs have to constantly allocate their attention to various stimulus presented to them. Therefore resulting in react faster and having more attention capacity. Studies demonstrate that VGPs in general perform better in certain attention based tasks than NVGPs in both selective and divided attention. [4]

Selective Attention

Selective attention is the ability to direct ones focus on specific information, and disregard other distractions happening around them. [4] VGPs tend to be better in most forms of selective attention, especially in visual selective attention. Using different tasks testing attention such as tracking moving objects or locating a specific target, video gamers always respond not only quicker (a faster reaction time) but also more accurate. [4,5] When testing the attentional blink of VGPs, they demonstrate a much faster recovery, revealing a temporal improvements in their attention. [4,6]

The benefits are not simply due to individual being better at video games. Training NVGPs is a way to demonstrate that the changes and improvements are specifically from playing video games. By training non-players, they show better results in their selective attention. Training with high action video games, in this study, Medal of Honour, resulted in better attentional blink. [6] Thus, by simply playing video games for a certain amount of time can prove to be beneficial.


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fMRI showing increase activity in the frontal parietal area in the NVGPs compared to VGPs. [4]

In order to develop selective attention, individuals need to learn to inhibit stimulus around them. VGPs are able to resist distracting stimulus to a greater degree than NVGPs. In a test situation with a substantial amount of interference, VGPs detect targets with better timing and accuracy. Even under conditions with high distractions, VGPs are able to focus and make better and more accurate perceptual decisions. [5]

Using fMRI scans, NVGPs tend to show higher activation in various brain areas. Common areas involved when testing attention are the frontal parietal areas such as the dorsal anterior cingulate. [4,5] Since certain tests involves the visual aspects, areas in the occipital cortex also show higher activity for NVGPs. Although both groups increase in cortical activity with rising difficulty, VGPs still show an overall lower amount of activation. [4,5] Less cortical activation represents a better use of their attention abilities. They are much more efficient at selecting what to pay attention, thus the respective areas are not firing as much, allowing them to direct their attention to other stimulus if needed. Furthermore, distractions are not stimulating VGPs as much the attention centres in the brain are activating less frequently. [5]

Divided Attention

Multitasking is an example of divided attention, where an individual needs to be aware of multiple activities at once. Divided attention occurs much more common in everyday life. Once more, VGPs display a superior ability in dividing their focus. In action oriented video games, it is also necessary to maintain and track different objects at once. Even NVGPs that train by playing video games tend to be better at multitasking. [7] By playing video games, it increases the attention capacity of an individual. This increase allows them to use the extra resource to fulfil other tasks. ERP shows increased involvement of the frontal lobe corresponding to the increase resources. [7]

Visual Perception

Visual Improvements

Contrary to popular beliefs, due to the visual involvement in playing video games, be it on the PC or a console, VGPs demonstrate better than average vision. For example, studies showed VGPs are better at differentiating contrast. [8] Once again, this improvement can be trained in NVGPs by playing action oriented video games such as Unreal Tournament. [10] These effects extend to more than simply improving contrast sensitivity. Recent findings show that playing both action and non-action oriented video games can actually help prevent amblyopia, also known as lazy eye. [9] The visual pressure and engagement that action video games provide help improve people’s vision. Therefore, due to brain plasticity, patients with amblyopia can improve their conditions by using these action video games. [8,9]. Video games as a technology is allowing new possibilities and treatment.

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The four conditions: a, c being third person and b, d being first. a and b represents participants being actively involved while, c and d are passive observers. [2]

Spatial Presence

There are also changes in spatial analysis such as spatial presence. To have a good spatial presence is to be able to direct one’s attention to a specific spatial sensory stimulus. To study spatial presence, participants of an experiment were put in a virtual environment (by playing Oblivion), and then manipulated their perspective: either first person or third person. Results show that there is a stronger sense of spatial presence to be actively involved in a first person state. [2] In this condition, the participants showed more activation in the parietal lobe as well as increase mental effort in the frontal cortex. The parietal lobe is involved with many of these spatial tasks and the frontal for executive functions. [2] Together, the increase activation help an individual become more skilled in gaining a spatial presence.

Visuomotor Changes

Video games are not only visually engaging but also require the players to control their motor abilities. Visuomotor involves connecting the muscle control and visual stimulus, something everyone does on a daily basis. It also involves oculomotor functions, affecting the movements of the eye, leading to changes in the superior colliculus. Initially both VGPs and NVGPs showed similar results in inhibiting their saccadic eye movement. However, as time passes VGPs are able to maintain this inhibition. [10]

Cortical Activities

Overall, NVGPs show a higher amount of activity for their parieto-frontal cortex involved with their motor and sensory abilities as well the occipital cortex involved with vision. [11,12] Similar to attention, VGPs show lower cortical activity in these areas due to being more efficient and more skilled. However, certain areas such as the rostral superior frontal gyrus (SFG) (used for decision-making) have increased activity. [11] Similarly, the dorsolateral prefrontal cortex (DLPFC) is an area also involved in decision-making and inhibition of certain motor behaviours. Interestingly, there seems to be both an increase and decrease of activity in this cortical area. NVGPs, that were trained, starts to show decrease activity in the DLPFC, specifically the right DLPFC. This is because they are improving in their ability to create motor decisions and plans, becoming efficient. [12] Yet DLPFC naturally has higher activity for actual VGPs. In order to create constant movement plans, VGPs are actively using this area to separate eye and hand movements, effectively performing motor actions that are unique and different from NVGPs. [11] This improved oculomotor control is not only demonstrated in VGPs but can be trained, eventually leading to higher levels of functioning. [12]

Other Effects

Elderly lady playing video games

Non-action Oriented Video Games

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Brain Age for the Nintendo DS

It is important to note that the cognitive changes are not only limited in action video games. Action video games are researched the most due to being the most controversial genre and require the most amount of involvement from the players. Other games, such as city simulators like Sims and puzzles like games like Bejeweled and Tetris are also beneficial. For example, playing Sims can also reduce amblyopia. [9] Although the effects were not as profound as action-oriented games, there were still improvements. In a way, depending on a game, it trains the players to be better at a specific task. Games like Brain Age, which are designed to help improve cognitive abilities, do indeed benefit functions like working memory, and processing speed. [13] Spatial working memory improves by playing video games that involves spatial tasks. [14] Similar to using action-oriented video games, playing Tetris resulted in better short-term memory (STM), notably the encoding speed of STM and visual STM. [3,15]


Common perception is that video games only affect males that are still young or in early adulthood. Effects affect not only younger but also older adults. [13] Gender wise, regardless of the training and genre of games, there are no significant differences either. [15] Males and females are both likely to benefit and perform the same.

Learning to Learn

Ultimately, what VGPs do best is “learning to learn”. [16] Their brain plasticity (just like individuals playing sports) plays a significant role in improving their cognitive functions. VGPs gain experience from playing games. They become better at certain cognitive functions, and they become more knowledgeable in how to use these functions. Gaming requires a person to hold onto relevant information and disregard interference. [16] Similar to the control in saccadic eye movements, the VGPs are demonstrating the ability of learning to learn. [12] Initially, they performed similar to NVGPs in suppressing their rapid eye movements, but they learn to be better at the task.

1. Bavelier, D., Green, C. S., Han D. H., Renshaw, P. F, Merzenich, M. M., & Gentile, D. A. (2011). Brains on video games. Perspectives in Nature Review in Neuroscience, 12, 763-768.
2. Havranek, M., Langer, N., Cheetham, M., & Jancke, L. (2012). Perspective and agency during video gaming influences spatial presence experience and brain activation patterns. Behavioural and Brain Functions, 8, 34.
3. Wilms, I. L., Petersen, A., & Vangkilde, S. (2012). Intensive video gaming improves encoding speed to visual short-term memory in young male adults. Acta Psychologica, 142, 108-118.
4. Bavelier, D., Achtman, R. L., Mani, M., & Focker, J. (2012). Neural bases of selective attention in action video game players. Vision Research, 61, 132-143.
5. Mishra, J., Zinni, M., Bavelier, D., & Hillyard, S. A. (2011). Neural Basis of Superior Performance of Action Videogame Players in an Attention-Demanding Task. The Journal of Neuroscience, 31, 992-998.
6. Green, C.S., & Bavelier, D. (2003). Action video games modifies visual selective attention. Nature, 423, 534-537.
7. Maclin, E. L., et al. (2011). Learning to multitask: Effects of video game practice on electrophysiological indices of attention and resource allocation. Psychophysiology, 48, 1173-1183.
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9. Li, R. W., Ngo, C., Nguyen, J., & Levi, D. M. (2011). Video-Game Play Induces Plasticity in the Visual System of Adults with Amblyopia. PLoS Biol, 9(8), e1001135.
10. West, G. L., Al-Aidroos, N., & Pratt, J. (2013). Action video game experience affects oculomotor performance. Acta Psychologica, 142, 38-42.
11. Granek, J. A., Grobet, D. J., & Sergio, L. E. (2010). Extensive video-game experience alters cortical networks for complex visuomotor transformations. Cortex, 46, 1165-1177.
12. Lee, H. et al. (2012). Videogame training strategy-induced change in brain function during a complex visuomotor task. Behavioural Brain Research, 232, 348-357.
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14. Oei, A.C., & Patterson, M. D. (2013). Enhancing Cognition with Video Games: A Multiple Game Training Study. PLoS ONE, 8(3), e58546.
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16. Bavelier, D., Green, C. S., Pouget, A., & Schrater, P. (2012). Brain Plasticity Through the Life Span: Learning to Learn and Action Video Games. Annu Reve Neurosci, 35, 391-416.

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