Playing strategic video game that rewards nation-building and territorial expansion can improve a number of cognitive skills in older adults, says a new study.
In the study on adults in their 60s and 70s, Illinois psychology professor Arthur Kramer and postdoctoral research Chandramallika Basak found that older adults can improve a number of cognitive functions by playing a strategic video game that rewards nation-building and territorial expansion.
"When you train somebody on a task they tend to improve in that task, whatever it is, but it usually doesn't transfer much beyond that skill or beyond the particular situation in which they learned it. And there are virtually no studies that examine whether there's any transfer outside the lab to things people care about," he said.
The researchers wanted to find out whether interactive video games might benefit those cognitive functions that decline most with age.
"Older people tend to fare less well on things that are called executive control processes. These include things like scheduling, planning, working memory, multitasking and dealing with ambiguity," said Kramer.
For the study, the researchers selected "Rise of Nations," which gives gamers points for building cities and "wonders," feeding and employing their people, maintaining an adequate military and expanding their territory.
"You need merchants. You need an army to protect yourself and you have to make sure you're spending some of your resources on education and food. This game stresses resource management and planning, which I think for older adults is important because many of them independently plan and manage their resources," said Basak, lead author on the study.
The study was conducted on 40 older adults, half of who received 23.5 hours of training in Rise of Nations. The others, a comparison group, received no training in the game. Both groups were assessed before, during and after the video game training on a variety of tests designed to measure executive control functions.
The tests included measures of their ability to switch between tasks, their short-term visual memory, their reasoning skills and their working memory, which is the ability to hold two or more pieces of information in memory and use the information as needed. There were also tests of the subjects' verbal recall, their ability to inhibit certain responses and their ability to identify an object that had been rotated to a greater or lesser degree from its original position.
It was found that training on the video game did improve the participants' performance on a number of these tests. As a group, the gamers became significantly better - and faster - at switching between tasks as compared to the comparison group.
Their working memory, as reflected in the tests, was also significantly improved. Their reasoning ability was enhanced. To a lesser extent, their short-term memory of visual cues was better than that of their peers, as was their ability to identify rotated objects.
However, the video game training had no effect on their ability to recall a list of words in order, their enumeration ability or their ability to inhibit certain responses.
Kramer said that there was a correlation between their performance on the game and their improvement on certain cognitive tests. Those who did well in the game also improved the most on switching between tasks. They also tended to do better on tests of working memory.
Basak said that the findings are meaningful, because they show that multi-dimensional training can affect many individual components of cognitive function.
The research appears this month in the journal Psychology and Aging.