Playing a fast-paced strategy video games can help the brain to become more agile and improve strategic thinking, according to new research.

Scientists from Queen Mary University of London and University College London (UCL) recruited 72 volunteers, asking them to play video games for 40 hours over six to eight weeks.

All the study participants were female, because the researchers said they could not recruit a sufficient number of male volunteers who played video games for less than two hours a week.

At the beginning of the study, the researchers measured the volunteers’ cognitive flexibility, described as the ability to adapt and switch between tasks, as well as think about multiple ideas at a given time to solve problems. Basically, cognitive flexibility is how fast a person can think on his or her feet.

The volunteers were split into three groups. The first two were trained to play different versions of a real-time strategy game called StarCraft, a fast-paced game where players have to build and organize armies to battle an enemy. The third group played a life simulation video game called The Sims, which does not require much memory or many tactics.

After undergoing a variety of psychological tests, the researchers discovered that those who played StarCraft were quicker and more accurate in performing cognitive flexibility tasks than those who played The Sims.

“Previous research has demonstrated that action video games, such as Halo, can speed up decision making, but the current work finds that real-time strategy games can also promote our ability to think on the fly and learn from past mistakes,” said Brian Glass, Ph.D., from Queen Mary’s School of Biological and Chemical Sciences.

However, the researchers only measured cognitive flexibility at the end of the experiment. It’s not clear whether the gains found after playing the strategy video game are retained over a longer period of time, or whether they dissipate once a person stops playing the video game.

“Creative problem solving and ‘thinking outside the box’ require cognitive flexibility,” said Brad Love, Ph.D., co-author on the study.

“Perhaps in contrast to the repetitive nature of work in past centuries, the modern knowledge economy places a premium on cognitive flexibility.”

The researchers noted that the volunteers who played the most complex version of the video game performed the best in the post-game psychological tests.

“We need to understand now what exactly about these games is leading to these changes, and whether these cognitive boosts are permanent or if they dwindle over time,” said Glass.

“Once we have that understanding, it could become possible to develop clinical interventions for symptoms related to attention deficit hyperactivity disorder or traumatic brain injuries, for example.”

The research study was published in the journal PLOS ONE.

Source: Queen Mary, University of London