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Gaming grannies: 'World of Warcraft' boosts cognitive abilities

World of Warcraft art

Artwork depicts characters from the hit online game "World of Warcraft." (World of Warcraft)

Playing a popular online game may improve some older adults' abilities to focus their attention, a new study suggests.

Those who spent two weeks playing "World of Warcraft" — a game in which players take on the role of a character, and role-play with others in fighting monsters and completing quests — improved more on tests of attention and of spatial abilities than those who didn't play the game, the results showed.

"It is a cognitively challenging game, in a socially interactive environment that presents users with novel situations,” said study researcher Anne McLaughlin, an assistant professor of psychology at North Carolina State University.

However, the amount of improvement depended on a person's ability at the start — those with the lowest baseline scores improved the most, whereas those with the highest scores at the outset gained no benefit from playing the game.  

The researchers noted that the improvement in thinking skills is likely not specific to this particular game. Any game that includes "multitasking and switching between multiple cognitive abilities such as memory and spatial manipulations, and reasoning," would be effective, they wrote.

The findings were published online on Feb. 17 in the journal Computers in Human Behavior.

Games and brains

The study included 39 people between the ages of 60 and 77. At the start, participants took a series of tests, measuring their vocabulary, spatial skills, memory and ability to focus. They were retested two weeks later.

The 20 people assigned to play the game attended a training session, where the rules of "World of Warcraft" were explained. They were told to play the game for about an hour a day at home.

After two weeks, those who played the game saw more improvement in their ability to control their attention compared with those who hadn’t played the game.

The researchers also found that among participants who played the game, those who had scored the lowest at the study's start on the attention test and spatial abilities test improved the most.

“The people who needed it most — those who performed the worst on the initial testing — saw the most improvement,” said Jason Allaire, an associate professor of psychology at NC State who also worked on the study.

The game brought no improvement in participants' memory skills, according to the study.

Does it matter when you start playing?

With aging, people's abilities to control their attention and learn new information decline, according to the study. While there's evidence that cognitive activities can improve thinking skills, researchers have debated who might benefit most, with some suspecting that younger adults — say, those in later middle age — would benefit more than the elderly.

But the new study found that not to be the case: there was no relationship between participants' ages and their improvement on the tests after playing the game.

"This is contrary to expectations of greater change in younger participants due to an increased capacity for neural plasticity," the researchers wrote. However, they noted the age range of participants in their study may have been too limited to see an effect.

The researchers said that their study was limited in that participants could not be randomly assigned to either the game-playing group or the control group, because only people with a computer and home Internet connection could be in the game-playing group. But they also noted the two groups did not differ in their average baseline test scores.

Pass it on: Playing the online, role-playing game "World of Warcraft" might help sharpen older adults' thinking skills.

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