There’s plenty of talk about how spending too much time playing video games is bad for us, but scientific research has found that playing video games can actually improve our cognition. In fact, scientists have found that memory, attention and abstract reasoning improved after playing video games when an elderly group of people were tested.
These benefits also extend to the other end of the age spectrum, as found by researchers at Columbia University and Paris Descartes University. They investigated the correlation between the time spent playing video games and the mental health, cognition and social skills of young children, finding that a child has almost twice the odds of high general competence in school when they play video games. More surprisingly, and perhaps importantly, the study didn’t identify any notable negative impacts on the mental health of the children playing these games.
But not all games bring the same benefits. According to neurobiologist Craig Stark, it’s the more immersive, exploratory games that act as a workout for the brain.
With such strong evidence pointing to the positive effects of video gameplay, many online games developers are producing mobile games that are specifically designed to improve players’ brain functioning. Whereas the aim of educational games is to teach players new information, which can be beneficial to cognitive functioning, there are also plenty of apps with games designed to improve memory and visual awareness. These are our top picks:
Developed by an in-house team of scientists, Lumosity is one of the best-known brain training apps on the market. The developers translate cognitive science into accessible brain training through its games, which work on speed, memory, attention, flexibility and problem solving, though there are also options for players looking to improve their English and mathematics skills.
Even within the same categories, the content of these games varies to keep players on their toes. In the problem solving category, for example, ‘Masterpiece’ requires players to fit various jigsaw pieces together to create a mosaic, whereas ‘Fuse Clues’ encourages players to exercise their logical reasoning as they decide which fuse is needed in each scenario.
These games have all been tested in a randomized trial involving 4,715 participants. The trial compared subjects using Lumosity brain training with others doing crossword puzzles, for the same amount of time per day, and found that those using Lumosity showed significant improvements regarding their working memory, arithmetic reasoning and processing speed.
Lumosity has proven popular since its release 10 years ago, with over 95 million members. Rated 4.7 out of 5 on the App Store, users around the world have been reaping its benefits.
You can play Lumosity brain games for free on desktop, iOS and Android, though a paid subscription does give you access to all games and a progress monitoring tool.
Fit Brains Trainer
Available for download on specialised iOS and Android apps, the Fit Brains Trainer gives users the chance to improve six of their major brain areas: focus, memory, speed, logic, visual and language. Used by more than 7 million people and voted best education app in more than 90 different countries, Fit Brains Trainer is developed by Rosetta Stone, a company with years of experience in the creation of learning tools, most notably its language courses.
Each of the games on the app has three difficulty levels — beginner, intermediate and advanced— but you can also unlock increased challenges if you complete a game particularly well. Fit Brains Trainer also comes with a tracker so you can track how much you’ve improved on your brain training journey.
While the app itself is targeted at adults, the games are suitable for a wide range of ages, including elementary school children. There are even exercises for children aged 2 to 8, which means everyone can benefit from this brain training.
The Fit Brains app is free to download, but users also have the option to upgrade to a paid subscription for more comprehensive access to games.
Mensa Brain Training
Mensa was always going to pop up in a conversation about brain training. This famous IQ society has its very own app for you to train your brain like a genius, working on your memory, concentration, agility, perception and reasoning skills.
The Mensa Brain Training games are developed by puzzle experts to give your brain a real workout. Activities range from Snowflake Match, in which you must pick snowflake shapes that fit the larger image, to Honeycomb Recall, where you must compare two patterns and highlight how they differ.
The Mensa Brain Training app is currently only available for iOS device users.
This app gives users the flexibility to customise their very own brain training program. Memorando lets you highlight which area you’d like to work on, such as memory, before completing an assessment test to pick the best brain games for you. You’ll then receive a personalised training schedule, highlighting five games for you each day.
It’s hardly surprising that users see an average 76% increase in brain quotient when using Memorando, given that the app is at the forefront of neuroscientific research and developed by brain training experts.
This brain training app is available in over 40 countries with over 75 million brain workouts having already been completed by its users. You can download the app for free on iOS and Android devices.
A Clockwork Brain
A Clockwork Brain is available for iOS, Android and Microsoft devices and offers a series of mini-games to test your brain. The games are designed to test memory, attention, dexterity, language and reasoning, all with adaptive difficulty so that you can push yourself over time. Each game you play costs ‘Energy’, of which you’re only allocated a certain amount. This energy is replenished over time, but you can also earn rewards playing the ‘Insane Round’, reserved for exceedingly skilled players. You’ll also be able to connect your A Clockwork Brain account to Facebook for Daily Booster games that don’t use up your energy resources.
This brain training platform differs to others in its Victorian Steampunk and Mayan Art design, as opposed to the minimalist, scientific aesthetic of other apps. As a result, you feel less like you’re training your brain and more like you’re just playing online puzzle games.
Whereas titles such as ‘Chase The Numbers’ require players to reveal numbers in the correct order after they’ve disappeared, ‘Points of View’ involves imagining how stacks of discs would look if viewed from above. Having such a range of activities really keeps you on your toes.
A Clockwork Brain is free to download, though you can upgrade to paid-for premium games if you wish.
While scientific research shows that you don’t need to play ‘educational’ games to see cognitive benefits more generally, some studies do show that these games can have a positive impact on fluid intelligence. That being said, with so many studies based around the positive effects of a wide range of games, perhaps you can feel less guilty about enjoying an hour or two of Minecraft, or playing online roulette for an evening after all.