It’s commonly believed that most video games turn your brain to mush. And while that’s pushing it, there have been studies showing some could lead to aggressive behavior or even become dangerously addictive. Aside from these outliers, however, there are games that offer benefits on the other side of the spectrum, providing benefits to the brains of those who play them. Here are three of them.


"Starcraft" is a real-time strategy (RTS) game that tasks players, who play as either humans or one of two alien species, with gathering resources, building bases, and ultimately defeating enemies.

A study published in PLOS ONE showed that playing 40 hours of the RTS game conferred benefits to players’ cognitive flexibility, which is the the brain's ability to switch back and forth between two different situations — in this case harvesting resources and fighting the enemy — as well as the ability to find creative solutions to problems.

"Cognitive flexibility varies across people and at different ages," said co-author Professor Brad Love of the University College London. "For example, a fictional character like Sherlock Holmes has the ability to simultaneously engage in multiple aspects of thought and mentally shift in response to changing goals and environmental conditions."

Researchers used two groups of volunteers to backup their claims that cognitive flexibility is a trainable skill. These volunteers played "Starcraft" or "The Sims" — a world simulation game that requires little to no memory or cognitive flexibility — for 40 hours over the course of six to eight weeks. Afterward, they underwent several psychological tests.

Results showed "Starcraft" players exhibited much greater speed and accuracy when they were asked to perform cognitive flexibility tasks, such as alternating between managing resource output and troop movement, remembering where locations were and accurately clicking their locations on a map, and switching between identifying troops and their purposes.

Co-author Dr. Brian Glass said, "Previous research has demonstrated that action video games, such as 'Halo,' can speed up decision-making, but the current work finds that real-time strategy games can promote our ability to think on the fly and learn from past mistakes."

Super Mario

"Super Mario 64" is the first adventure for Nintendo's "Mario" in 3D. Players controlling Mario can make him run, jump, hop, and skip through colorful worlds, where they stomp Goombas, collect coins and stars, and solve various puzzles.

A study conducted at the Max Planck Institute for Human Development and Charité University Medicine St. Hedwig-Krankenhaus found playing the game increases gray matter — which is a big part of our central nervous system, helping control muscles as well as seeing, hearing, decision-making, and more — in areas of the brain that deal with everything from spatial orientation to strategic planning.

For the study, researchers had participants play "Super Mario 64" for 30 minutes a day for two months, while a control group played nothing at all. At the end of two months, the participants underwent an MRI to see how their brains’ volume changed. When compared to the non-gaming group, those who played "Super Mario 64" showed increases in gray matter in the right hippocampus, right prefrontal cortex, and the cerebellum. These areas of the brain are responsible for how memory is formed, how we navigate, planning and executing strategy, and fine motor skills in the hands, among other roles. There was also more profound growth in these areas when a participant reported wanting to play the game more often.

“The present study can demonstrate the direct causal link between video gaming and a volumetric brain increase. This proves that specific brain regions can be trained by means of video games,” said study leader Simone Kühn, senior scientist at the Center for Lifespan Psychology at the Max Planck Institute for Human Development. She also believes that this study will help patients with mental illnesses that reduce gray matter like schizophrenia, post-traumatic stress disorder, or Alzheimer’s.

Project: EVO

Project: EVO is a “digital intervention delivered through an action video game interface that’s designed to improve cognitive control,” game developer Akili Interactive Labs’ CEO Eddie Martucci told Medical Daily. Project: EVO aims to be one of the first “prescription-strength games,” with the goal of helping ADHD patients overcome some of their greatest challenges, like problem solving, working memory, and self-regulation, Martucci said.

When presenting data at at the American Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry’s 62nd annual meeting last month, Akili produced a study that showed Project: EVO ’s safety and feasibility when it comes to treating those who suffer from ADHD.

The study tested 80 children between the ages of 8 and 12, half of whom had been diagnosed with ADHD and weren’t taking any medication. The other half had no diagnosis of ADHD at all. The researchers had the children play Project: EVO for 30 minutes day, five times a week for four weeks. They found that the children with ADHD exhibited a significantly increased attention span after the four weeks, when compared to those who didn’t have ADHD.

“These data demonstrate that Project: EVO improved attentional functioning and working memory in children with ADHD,” said lead author Dr. Scott Kollins, professor of psychiatry and director of the ADHD Program at the Duke University School of Medicine, in a press release. “While results are preliminary, these data provide a strong rationale for continued work to develop this novel digital intervention for ADHD.”

While all of these games have been shown to be beneficial to the brain, all of the studies still warned that excessive game playing may be detrimental to players’ health. As with anything, it should be done in moderation.