A recent research report implies that if you’re looking for cognitive benefits, you might want to put down your brain game in favor of a good old-fashioned action video game.

We already know that some kinds of video games can help cognitive function. And in the past few years, games like the Lumosity series have been marketed with the specific goal of making you smarter or improving your memory. But until now, no one has compared these games to other types of video games. In this study, the researchers did just that, and the action game genre won. 

When the authors  of this study, C. Shawn Green and Aaron R. Seitzrefer, refer to action games, they’re talking about 3D games with fast-paced gameplay. Examples include first-person shooters like Halo and action-adventure games like Grand Theft Auto. These kind of games have targets moving in and out of view so that you have to keep scanning the screen. And they have lots going on, so you have to constantly change what you’re focusing on and make “rapid, but accurate decisions.” Overall, the report says, “…the literature supports the conclusion that playing action video games provides broad-based and consistent benefits on tests of cognitive skills.” Perception, attention, and higher cognitive functions (like multitasking) all benefit.

cognitive benefits

NeuroRacer has demonstrated long-lasting cognitive benefits.

“Brain games” are games that are specifically developed to train your brain. Nintendo’s Brain Age and the Lumosity games are examples. These games tend to focus on a particular deficit (like short-term memory) but don’t generally show the same level of results as commercial action games do. An exception is a brain-training game called NeuroRacer, which “resulted in improvements in multitasking, sustained attention, and working memory in a group of older adults, with improvements persisting for at least 6 months after the cessation of training.”

So should you run right out, get the latest action game, and make your kid play it? No.

Some action games may have violence or other content that’s inappropriate for kids. And too much time playing certain video games may  reduce the ability to maintain sustained focus. The authors of this study provide this takeaway: “Many questions remain as to how to best translate the base science to produce public good.”

The key seems to be more research. What specific games enhance particular abilities? What are the downsides of gaming on cognition? And how much should you limit game time? We look forward to finding all this out as more researchers dig into these important questions.


This article was written by

Linda learned to play video games as a way to connect with her teenaged kids, and then she learned to love video games for their own sake. At Pixelkin she wrangles the business & management side of things, writes posts as often as she can, reaches out on the social media, and does the occasional panel or talk. She lives in Seattle, where she writes, studies, plays video games, spends time with her family, consumes vast quantities of science fiction, and looks after her small cockapoo. She loves to hear from people out there. You can read more about her at her website, Linda Breneman.com or her family foundation's website, ludusproject.org.