The case for getting grandma to play World of Warcraft

Researchers find that a few hours playing WoW boosts certain cognitive functions in older adults--especially those who had scored poorly prior to playing.

Blizzard Entertainment

The online video game World of Warcraft is in the news again, this time for its potential to help boost certain cognitive skills--specifically spatial ability and focused attention--in older adults.

Researchers at North Carolina State University's Gains Through Gaming Lab tested the cognitive functions of 39 60- to 77-year-olds and then broke the study's participants into an experimental group, which played the MMORPG for 14 hours over a two-week period, and a control group, which did not play WoW at all.

It turns out that the adults who played WoW for two weeks improved their baseline scores, with those who started off with the lowest scores improving the most and those who started off with the highest scores showing no significant improvements.

"We chose World of Warcraft because...it is a cognitively challenging game in a socially interactive environment that presents users with novel situations," Anne McLaughlin, co-author and assistant professor of psychology, said in a school news release. "We found there were improvements, but it depended on each participant's baseline cognitive functioning level."

This initial study, the findings of which appear in the journal Computers in Human Behavior, shows that gamers had improved spatial abilities and were able to focus their attention better, though there was no difference between pre- and postgame memory scores.

Meanwhile a much larger study of more than 3,000 8- to 17-year-olds tested over a three-year period in Singapore finds that the kids who game the most risk developing attention difficulties, while those who start off with attention problems also tend to play more video games. The researchers write that "total time spent with video games" appears to be a consistent predictor of attention problems, but actual time spent playing wasn't qualified beyond this four-point scale: never, seldom, often, or almost always.

"It is possible that electronic media use can impair attention necessary for concentration even as it enhances the ability to notice and process visual information," head researcher Douglas Gentile of Iowa State University said in a news release.

Both studies seem to indicate that moderation is important. So before you go and get grandma absolutely addicted to WoW, be careful what you wish for: She might soon turn into an eagle-eyed yet distracted version of her former self.

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About the author

Elizabeth Armstrong Moore is based in Portland, Oregon, and has written for Wired, The Christian Science Monitor, and public radio. Her semi-obscure hobbies include climbing, billiards, board games that take up a lot of space, and piano.

 

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