The old stereotype about playing video games is that it's not any good for you, but there's a wealth of research to the contrary, highlighting how they're beneficial for things like our problem-solving skills and learning abilities.
Now a new study says playing video games can also help boost the formation of memories - provided the games being played feature virtual 3D environments, as opposed to more simplistic titles with 2D levels and presentations.
To test the effects of games on memory formation, researchers from the University of California, Irvine (UCI) recruited non-gamer college students to play video games for 30 minutes per day over two weeks. (We have to say, as far as research participation goes, this is one of the sweetest gigs we've heard about.)
The students were asked to play one of two games: Super Mario 3D World, which features an intricate 3D game world, or Angry Birds, set in a comparatively passive and simple 2D environment.
Before and after the game-playing sessions, the students performed object-recognition memory tests designed to engage the brain's hippocampus, which is associated with complex learning and memory.
The researchers found that the students who played 3D video games improved their scores on the memory tests, and by a considerable margin: their memory performance increased by about 12 percent, which the researchers say is the amount memory normally decreases between the ages of 45 and 70. Meanwhile, the players of the 2D games demonstrated no such boost. How exactly is this possible?
"First, the 3D games have a few things the 2D ones do not," said Craig Stark of UCI's Centre for the Neurobiology of Learning & Memory. "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."
It's unknown whether the 3D games deliver the memory boost by virtue of their artificial 3D environments, or whether it just so happens that 3D games are more immersive and complicated than their 2D counterparts, and thus naturally stimulate the hippocampus to a greater extent. (And certainly Angry Birds is a very facile game, despite its pseudo-realistic physics.)
"It's quite possible that by explicitly avoiding a narrow focus on a single … cognitive domain and by more closely paralleling natural experience, immersive video games may be better suited to provide enriching experiences that translate into functional gains," said Stark.
The findings, which are published in the Journal of Neuroscience, aren't just focused on measuring the stimulus contemporary gamers are getting from their game-playing fix. Rather, it's possible this research could help scientists one day reverse the cognitive deficits presented by people as they get older or develop dementia.
"Can we use this video game approach to help improve hippocampus functioning?" asked Stark. "It's often suggested that an active, engaged lifestyle can be a real factor in stemming cognitive ageing. While we can't all travel the world on vacation, we can do many other things to keep us cognitively engaged and active. Video games may be a nice, viable route."