It’s easy to write off video games as a waste of time. People start off a little obsessed, but soon after it turns into a deep devotion — by this point they’re thinking of little else but beating the next level. Even though a child, significant other, or friend who does this may be annoying, at least there’s evidence gaming isn’t useless. Video games may actually be making people smarter.

A new article highlights the differences in content, mechanics, and dynamics of different video games and their effects on human cognition. The authors, Dr. Shawn Green and Aaron R. Seltz[1], argue video game themes are so varied that the individual aspects of each must be analyzed before conclusions can be drawn about their benefits to the brain.

“The term ‘video games’ refers to thousands of quite disparate types of experiences,” they wrote in the study.[2]  “A useful analogy is to the term ‘food’ — one would never ask, ‘what is the effect of eating food on the body?’ Instead, it is understood that the effects of a given type of food depend on the composition of the food, such as the number of calories; the percentage of protein, fat, and carbohydrates; the vitamin and mineral content; and so on.”

The authors claim that action games — those that include fast-moving targets moving in and out of view amid lots of clutter, and require the player to make rapid, accurate decisions — are particularly beneficial to cognitive function. These benefits remain even when they’re compared to “brain games,” which were created specifically to improve cognitive function.

“Action video games have been linked to improving attention skills, brain processing, and cognitive functions including low-level vision through high-level cognitive abilities,” the study said. “Many other types of games do not produce an equivalent impact on perception and cognition.”

These benefits come with a cost, however, as past research has linked action video games to problems in the classroom, particularly with regard to being attentive. Also, the social impacts (aggressive behavior, changes in emotional capacity) of games cannot be ignored; these can be positive or negative depending on the content of the game in question.[3] 

“Modern video games have evolved into sophisticated experiences that instantiate many principles known by psychologists, neuroscientists, and educators to be fundamental to altering behavior, producing learning, and promoting brain plasticity,” the study explained.

The very nature of video games involves learning, argue the researchers. When a player responds to different scenarios in a game, they get get immediate feedback, which is an effective way to learn [4] — much more effective than passive learning.

Source: Green S, Seitz A. The Impact of Video Games on Cognition (And how The Government Can Guide The Industry). Policy Insights from the Behavioral and Brain Sciences. 2015.