Video games, the world has come to realize, can do good. Twenty or thirty years ago, people had a harder time accepting this, much to the frustration of daily-gaming youngsters such as myself. I remember deciding, for a school science project, to demonstrate that video games improve "hand-eye coordination," the go-to benefit in those days to explain why they weren't all bad. But as our understanding of video games has become more sophisticated, as have video games themselves, it's become clear that we can engineer them to improve much more about ourselves than that.
The New Yorker's Dan Hurley recently wrote about findings from a study called Advanced Cognitive Training for Independent and Vital Elderly (ACTIVE), which began with three thousand participants back in 1998. "The participants, who had an average age of 73.6 at the beginning of the trial, were randomly divided into four groups. The first group, which served as control, received no brain training at all. The next two were given ten hours of classroom instruction on how to improve memory or reasoning. The last group performed something called speed-of-processing training" by playing a kind of video game for ten hour-long sessions spread over five weeks.
A decade into the study, some of the participants received extra training. 14 percent of the group who received no training met the criteria for dementia, 12.1 percent did in the group who received speed-of-processing training, and only 8.2 percent did in the group who received all possible training. "In all, the researchers calculated, those who completed at least some of these booster sessions were forty-eight-per-cent less likely to be diagnosed with dementia after ten years than their peers in the control group."
Intriguing findings, and ones that have set off a good deal of media coverage. What sort of video game did ACTIVE use to get these results? The Wall Street Journal's Sumathi Reddy reports that "the exercise used in the study was developed by researchers but acquired by Posit Science, of San Francisco, in 2007," who have gone on to market a version of it called Double Decision. In it, the player "must identify an object at the center of their gaze and simultaneously identify an object in the periphery," like cars, signs, and other objects on a variety of landscapes. "As players get correct answers, the presentation time speeds up, distractors are introduced and the targets become more difficult to differentiate."
You can see that game in action, and learn a little more about the study, in the Wall Street Journal video above. Effective brain-training video games remain in their infancy (and a few of the articles about ACTIVE's findings fail to mention Lumos Labs' $2 million payment to the government to settle charges that the company falsely claimed that their games could stave off dementia) but if the ones that work can harness the addictive power of an Angry Birds or a Candy Crush, we must prepare ourselves for a sharp generation of senior citizens indeed.
Note: The Advanced Cognitive Training for Independent and Vital Elderly (ACTIVE) study was funded by the National Institute on Aging (NIA) and the National Institute of Nursing Research (NINR), both part of the National Institutes of Health (NIH).
Based in Seoul, Colin Marshall writes and broadcasts on cities and culture. He’s at work on a book about Los Angeles, A Los Angeles Primer, the video series The City in Cinema, the crowdfunded journalism project Where Is the City of the Future?, and the Los Angeles Review of Books’ Korea Blog. Follow him on Twitter at @colinmarshall or on Facebook.