Don’t be surprised if your doctor recommends playing more video games—as long as they get you moving.
A new paper examined the brain health effects of active video games; that is, games that involve a physical component. Researchers at the University of Manchester reviewed seventeen well-designed scientific studies, and there was a clear effect: active gaming benefits overall cognition.
Interventions included playing Nintendo Wii, dancing-based games, and exercise equipment outfitted with screens and virtual tracks. People who participated in these interventions outperformed people who didn’t in various cognitive tests. Executive functioning tests, like many of those from Cambridge Brain Sciences, benefitted the most.
In the past, video games have been targeted at children, but now people of all ages enjoy them, and it may actually be older adults who have the most to gain. Neurological conditions that impair executive function, like Alzheimer’s and mild cognitive impairment, become more common with age, and active gaming may prevent or reduce their effects. However, not only older adults or clinical populations benefit; unlike many interventions like this, active gaming was found to benefit healthy adults as well.
A reasonable skeptical question to ask: isn’t this just another form of exercise? We already knew that exercise is good for the brain. While true, the review directly compared active gaming with plain activity, and the cognitive benefits were significantly stronger for active gaming. That is, exercise alone didn’t have as strong an effect; the cognitive component was required for maximum brain benefit.
Active gaming has become a large part of the video game landscape. Systems like the Nintendo Switch and Oculus Quest have motion controls as an option. Augmented reality also encourages real-world exercise; AR games like Pokemon Go are popular on smartphones, and companies like Apple and Microsoft are anticipated to bet big on augmented reality in coming years. So there are lots of options for adding some active gaming to your life.