Photo by Erik Lucatero on Unsplash.

“Stop playing those games, you’ll rot your brain!” said every game-fatigued parent ever.

So, imagine your surprise when the doctor prescribes a daily round of Solitaire or a shooter game to keep your memory and reflexes sharp. It might sound bizarre at first, but the latest research hints that video games could be a solution to prevent or slow cognitive decline. What’s more, advances in collaborative game developing have turned gaming into a legit social activity – and a way to bring your family closer together than ever.

“Use it or lose it”

Video games can present a new and fun way to learn – something that’s especially important as we age. “We have the capacity to train and retrain our brain, and the old saying ‘lose it or use it’ hints that we have to keep on learning new things,” says Dr. Eleni Stroulia, a researcher at the University of Alberta. “That’s how we exercise our brain and keep it in good working order.”

Video games can present a new and fun way to learn

To help, researchers are developing educational digital games that combine traditional gameplay with trivia questions or mental drills. Answering a multiple-choice question between moves in Solitaire, or solving a problem before taking a turn at Tic-Tac-Toe or Bingo or Parcheesi, games that Montreal-based investigator Dr. Louise Sauvé has developed, balance the fun of gameplay with the challenge of learning. Players feel motivated to learn while they have fun, outside the traditional classroom setting.

The family that games together…

Friendly competition is a universal language – and one that transcends generational barriers.

“The strength of digital games is that they’re fun. You play together, and you’re having fun together,” says Dr. David Kaufman, a researcher at Simon Fraser University. “It’s a great way to relate, especially if you’re in a family setting with kids, where it can be hard to talk for a long time. If you’re playing, you can go on for hours.”

The strength of digital games is that they’re fun

And if your fam’s friendly competition sometimes gets a little too competitive? Try a team game, like a multi-player shooter or action-adventure game to rally around a common goal (and maybe go on a fantastical quest that could rival even the greatest family vacation).

Digital bowling? It’s a date!

Looking to make new friends? Gaming might be a great place to start. Kaufman’s work shows that digital gaming, done right, can start a party.

When his research team set up a weekly digital bowling tournament among older adults, the study participants went all in – showing up to practise between sessions, creating team T-shirts and even attracting crowds of adoring fans.

“Not only did people make a whole lot of new friends, but after the word got out, dozens of people would come out to watch and cheer on the players,” says Kaufman. “They wanted their centre to win.”

Dr. Stroulia also found that gaming upped social engagement when she looked at the benefits of video games in people with mild to moderate cognitive decline. Not only did the participants learn the game – a surprising feat for those with cognitive decline – but one player went from lonely and unresponsive in his day-to-day life to engaged and motivated. “He was present and he was excited to play the game,” she says.

gaming Improves social engagement in people with mild to moderate cognitive decline

And on top of the (fun) benefit of making new friends, that social engagement is good for your brain. “The literature suggests that social engagement appears to effect new neural connections in the brain, and there’s a clear association between lack of social engagement and cognitive decline in older adults,” says Dr. David Kaufman, a researcher at Simon Fraser University. “We know from the literature that there are strong associations among loneliness, depression, lack of social engagement and cognitive decline.” Kaufman, like Stroulia and Sauvé, are developing an array of games as part of their work with AGE-WELL, Canada’s Technology and Aging Network.

A cure for lost keys?

Gaming could also be a great way to keep your memory sharp. In fact, a review published in Systematic Reviews in 2016 analyzed the results of 34 earlier studies and found a link between social engagement and better overall cognitive functioning. The benefits also included better working memory – the type of short-term memory you’d use, for example, to remember how to prepare your favourite meal.

Byte into the benefits

While the research into video games has already yielded surprising benefits, there are still many unanswered questions. “Because it’s such a new area of research, we’ve only touched the surface of our knowledge in this area,” says Kaufman.

However, Kaufman speculates that more immersive games – ones that require in-depth teamwork or problem-solving – may be more effective for developing and maintaining those skills outside the game. Another factor to consider is the complexity of a game. He has found that playing games at an intermediate level seems to offer more benefits than playing at a beginner level. Choosing digital versions of familiar games – like bowling or board games – also makes gaming easier to learn for those who aren’t naturally tech-savvy.

playing games at an intermediate level seems to offer more benefits than playing at a beginner level

Ongoing research will tell us more about how to play video games to maximize their benefits, as well as explore the limits of their potential to help. That includes whether they might stop cognitive decline once it has started. What we do know, though, is that games offer a fun new way for people to learn, make new social connections and live a happier, healthier life.

Now, who’s up for a game of whack-a-mole?