Can Video Games Make Your Kids Smarter?

Health & Wellness on 06.14.11
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A new study from University of Michigan suggests that playing a video game designed to improve working memory in school kids can have long-term positive effects on a their problem solving skills. Working memory is the "temporary storage" we use to suspend various bits of information so that we can manipulate them when dealing with complex problems, like mathematical equations.

Randy Doltiga, reporting in Health Day, explains that researchers administered a test to 62 elementary school kids, and then had them all play a game in which they had to recognize the previous locations of frogs on lily pads.  The game got harder as kids improved, but easier for those who struggled.

On tests three months later, those who improved most at the video game also did best on the test, even though those kids had not shown any kind of advantage in the earlier, pre-gaming, testing.

The study's author, Susan Jaeggi, explains the implications of the results as follows: "In general, working memory capacity is crucial for our general ability to acquire knowledge and learn new skills, and it has been shown that working memory is even better at predicting scholastic achievement than measures of intelligence."

I'm not a video game guy myself, and the idea of my kids sitting in front of a monitor for hours playing any game seems somehow...unwholesome.  But I have to admit that my friends who play video games have some pretty incredible skills, which they have clearly developed by logging many hours on the joystick or keyboard.  Unfortunately, most of the skills seem to involve shooting aliens, or jacking cars, or shooting aliens while jacking cars. 

It's undeniable that video games are effective at teaching--it seems that it's just difficult to develop games that teach desirable skills and are still attractive to kids.  So this idea of training younger kids--who we hope have not yet become jaded by afternoons whiled away on Grand Theft Auto: Descent into Hades--on simple memory games, makes sense. 

The researchers assert that the success of this kind of cognitive training is difficult to replicate in other formats.  But I wonder how much the format matters.  I'd like to see a study where some kids played video games and some played with cards or gamepieces and--you know--other kids.  Is using video games somehow a different cognitive experience than flash cards or board games?  Or is it just a more streamlined, interactive, and dynamic variation on the old techniques?

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