Want to train your brain? Play StarCraft

A new study has found that real-time strategy gaming can increase the cognitive flexibility of the player.

Michelle Starr Science editor
Michelle Starr is CNET's science editor, and she hopes to get you as enthralled with the wonders of the universe as she is. When she's not daydreaming about flying through space, she's daydreaming about bats.
Michelle Starr
3 min read

(Credit: Blizzard)

A new study has found that real-time strategy gaming can increase the cognitive flexibility of the player.

Studies have demonstrated time and again that video games are an excellent way to keep your brain in tip-top working condition.

A new study conducted by brain experts has found a way one specific type of game can help improve cognitive function. Graduate student Brian D Glass and Dr Todd Maddox of the University of Texas, and professor Bradley C Love of the University College London, have demonstrated that real-time strategy games — StarCraft, in particular — can improve cognitive flexibility: the brain's ability to switch between concepts on the fly, think about multiple concepts simultaneously and allocate cognitive resources.

According to the researchers, real-time strategy is perfect for training this ability because it involves rapid decision making and processing multiple sources of information over a sustained period.

Twenty two participants — all female, because the researchers did not receive enough male respondents who did not regularly play video games — were selected from the University of Texas, with a median age of 20. The participants had to play fewer than two hours of video games per week.

They were divided into three groups. The control group played The Sims, which involved playing a single household. The two StarCraft groups had two different versions of the game, which was altered to remove mini-map alerts to force the player to rely on memory for events occurring off-screen: a complex version and a basic version. In the complex version, the player had two bases and the enemy two bases; in the basic version, the player and enemy each had only one base, reducing the amount of information the player had to memorise.

Before and after playing the game for 40 hours for no more than three hours per day, the subjects took a series of cognitive tests, including: the Attention Network Test, which requires the subject to respond quickly to cues on a screen while focusing on a centre target; the Stroop test, in which participants have to name the font colour of a written colour; a task-switching test; a memory span test; and an information filtering test. Some of these tests have to do with cognitive flexibility; others, however, such as finding a specific object on a screen, do not.

For the pre-test, there was no appreciable difference between the results of the groups. However, after playing the game, the StarCraft groups displayed a dramatic improvement in their cognitive flexibility test results, compared to the Sims group, which did not. Both groups showed no marked improvement in the non-flexibility tests.

"Overall, these results are highly supportive of our predictions," the study said. "RTS gaming selectively promotes cognitive flexibility, particularly under conditions in which players must rapidly switch between contexts while maintaining memory for both contexts."

Now, if you'll excuse us, we have some very important brain training to do. Yep. That's it.

You can read the full paper, "Real-Time Strategy Game Training: Emergence of a Cognitive Flexibility Trait", in the journal PLOS One.

Via games.slashdot.org