Video games have been decried by many parents and social scientists as mind-numbing and destructive garbage. However, new research indicates that certain games may actually boost brain power and improve strategic thinking. The study found that test subjects playing the real-time strategy game StarCraft exhibited more agile decision making as well as overall improvements in “cognitive flexibility” — the mental faculty of creative and lateral thinking.

"Our paper shows that cognitive flexibility, a cornerstone of human intelligence, is not a static trait but can be trained and improved using fun learning tools like gaming," said lead author Dr. Brian Glass, a researcher at Queen Mary’s School of Biological and Chemical Sciences. He explains that StarCraft and similar fast-paced strategy games require both an acceleration of mental processes and a heightened capacity to perform multiple tasks at once. Though previous research has indicated that video games may speed up decision making, Glass and his colleagues’ paper reveals that the popular pastime may actively promote more versatile thinking.

"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,” Glass explained.

In the experiment, 72 volunteers were divided into three groups. Two of the groups were asked to play different versions of the game StarCraft for 40 hours over a period of six to eight weeks. The third group played The Sims, a passive life simulation game without a clear strategic element. Regular psychological evaluations found that test subjects playing StarCraft exhibited higher mental celerity and cognitive flexibility than those who played The Sims.

Glass noted that among the StarCraft players, the psychological benefits seemed proportional to the complexity of the version played. This gradual improvement suggests that the scientists’ results can be generalized to include other games, as the cognitive aptitude corresponded to hard complexity rather than the game itself. That said, it is still unclear how the benefits occur, and whether they are lasting.

“We need to understand now what exactly about these games is leading to these changes, and whether these cognitive boosts are permanent or if they dwindle over time,” Glass said. "Once we have that understanding, it could become possible to develop clinical interventions for symptoms related to attention deficit hyperactivity disorder or traumatic brain injuries, for example."

Source: Glass BD, Maddox WT, Love BC. Real-Time Strategy Game Training: Emergence of a Cognitive Flexibility Trait. PLoS ONE. 2013.