Playing 3D Video Games Like 'Super Mario' Is Better For Memory Than 2D Games Like 'Angry Birds'

Super Mario 3D World
Video games may help enhance memory. Farley Santos CC BY-SA 2.0

Plenty of research has proven that playing video games can be beneficial to the brain. They can improve the brain’s connections, help with our attention span, and even make us dislike junk food. Now, a new study has found videogames can also improve our how we consolidate memories.

In a study published in The Journal of Neuroscience, researchers from the University of California found playing 3D video games, such as “Super Mario 3D World,” are much better for memory than playing 2D games like “Angry Birds.”

"First, the 3D games have a few things the 2D ones do not," said co-author Gregory Clemenson, a postdoctoral scholar at the University of California, Irvine, in a press release. "They've got a lot more spatial information in there to explore. Second, they're much more complex, with a lot more information to learn. Either way, we know this kind of learning and memory not only stimulates but requires the hippocampus."

Clemenson, along with Craig Stark, a professor of neurobiology and behavior, recruited a group of 39 self-described gamers and 29 non-gamers to test how both 3D and 2D games affected their memory. Before they played the games, the participants completed a questionnaire asking how often they played video games, what games they played, how well they played them, and how competitive they were while they played.

They were then tasked with completing two memory tests: one asked them to determine how many dots or lines flashed on a screen, while the other had them studying pictures of everyday objects. They were then shown the same objects, new ones, and ones that had been altered slightly, and asked to categorize them as such. Each of these tests were meant to employ the hippocampus — a region of the brain responsible for complex learning and memory.

After completing these tests, participants played either 3D or 2D video games for 30 minutes a day for 10 days, then they were put through the same series of memory tests again. While researchers found there was no difference between the two groups when it came to the dot or line test, those who played the 3D games had a 12 percent increase in memory performance over those who only played 2D games in the object recognition tests.

The researchers suggested that when a person plays big, immersive games like “Super Mario 3D World,” their brain goes through the same processes as it would when they gather real-world spatial information. In other words, the game forced players to consider how to navigate Mario through the game world and its obstacles. That’s in addition to a wealth of other information they had to learn, all of which kept their hippocampi “in good shape,” Stark said.

“Modern video games can naturally draw on or require many cognitive processes, including visual, spatial, emotional, motivational, attentional, critical thinking, problem solving, and working memory,” the researchers wrote. They added that by avoiding a narrow focus in video game tasks, such as using birds to knock down towers in “Angry Birds,” “immersive video games [like ‘Super Mario 3D World’] may be better suited to provide enriching experiences that translate into functional gains.”

Source: Clemenson, G, Stark, C. Virtual Environmental Enrichment through Video Games Improves Hippocampal-Associated Memory. The Journal of Neuroscience. 2015.

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