By Marvin Scott
The cover of the July 2016 Scientific American caught my eye. Its cover story was “Better Brains from Games: shooting zombies isn’t mindless fun; action games can enhance mental skills.”
Inside on pages 26-31, an article classified as “cognitive science” spelled out the details and started me thinking. It seems a team of researchers were studying brain plasticity and using a cognitive test. They decided to have an 18-year-old undergrad assistant try the test. The test was reported to be so hard most people scored poorly on it. But the young man turned in a nearly perfect score. Shocking! So they asked him to round up more people to take the test. He gathered some of his friends. They too scored nearly perfect scores. Were they all geniuses? No. They had all been playing a video game, “Team Fortress Classic.” A subsequent experiment with a control group showed that playing the game did indeed increase scores on the test. Then they went on to run similar experiments on a variety of video games and also on some brain building exercises designed by experts. The results were interesting. The games did a better job of increasing cognitive functions.
My reaction came in two stages. First: What else is new? It seems to me that games have been used for decades to teach certain skills. I may be over-simplifying “cognitive tests” and brain plasticity as simply learning or training. But games or simulations have been used to teach certain skills for a long time. In fact, the Scientific American ran an article in 1898 about Fred Jane’s Naval Wargame. These days, simulations are routinely used to train pilots, and there are too many other examples for me to list.
Second: The studies were all using video games. What about three dimensional simulations? Wargames? Solo wargames? What do they do to players’ brains? My personal guess is that miniature war games and especially solo wargames played manually develop imagination and/or creativity. I offer two examples. Both of my sons grew up playing miniature wargames and solo games. Both are now adults and they are inventors. One is a research scientist and the other is an engineer. So I am wondering, is there any scientific research on the effects of playing miniature wargames or solo games? Does somebody have more information?