Games have always been part of the human experience. The earliest archaeological records we have show evidence of playfulness and experimentation — from painted game pieces found in a 5,000-year-old tomb in Turkey to hieroglyphs depicting Egyptian nobles playing Senet. As a species, we like to play.
While the games we play are about having fun and simply savoring this ornate and intricate intelligence of ours, there’s more to it than that. Whatever goals you may have, from becoming an entrepreneur to discovering the cure to a disease, intelligence is one important key to unlocking it.
But this opens up an interesting question! Are these games we play simply a byproduct of our species’ over-abundant braininess? Or do they truly somehow help build it? Some recent scientific findings shed some light.
There’s A Correlation — But It’s Complex
First off, there’s pretty firm evidence to suggest that some forms of gaming are correlated with high scores in conventional IQ tests.
For example, researchers at the University of York found that adults who play online strategy games (particularly those involving team cooperation) score highly on standard intelligence tests.
Not many surprises there! Online strategy games are designed to be intellectually demanding. To be good at these games it’s necessary to draw from a smorgasbord of complex analytical processes. It stands to reason that people who are good at such activities will gravitate to these pursuits.
It’s important to point out here also that the correlation between gaming and intelligence is a bit more complex than “more gaming equals more brains.” Notably, that correlation is less significant among those who play more action-oriented games involving twitch reflexes and rapid target tracking.
The type of game is important.
But Does Gaming Foster Intelligence?
A correlation is not the same as cause and effect. After all, there’s a correlation between basketball and tall athletes, but I’m not sure you’d find many biologists out there arguing that basketball makes people taller.
The question of whether games actually make people smarter is harder to answer.
In a Florida State University study, the physical effects in the brain of a puzzle video game were compared to the effects derived from conventional brain-teaser puzzles.
The study found that those playing the puzzle video game showed demonstrable skill improvements in spatial reasoning and problem-solving — in fact far more so than by completing basic brain-teasers. Related studies have shown that actual increases in gray matter (associated with problem-solving) and white matter (the cells responsible for connectivity across the brain) were observed in the brain.
In other words, provided the games you invest time in involve puzzles, strategy, reasoning and logic, scientific research suggests you’re actively improving not just your mind’s capabilities but also its basic, functional hardware.
The science backs it up: gaming can actively increase your intelligence.
Intelligence Isn’t Just Raw Analytical Power
But there’s another piece to this puzzle.
To think of intelligence merely as the ability to process information is like thinking of music as a sequence of C major notes on a scale. There’s so much more to mental aptitude than rapidly performing a sequence of calculations.
Just as music has nuances — key, syncopation and a nearly endless set of parameters to its distinctiveness — the same could be said of intelligence.
A 2013 American Psychology Association review of video game research revealed a more subtle picture of the impact of gaming on different kinds of intelligence.
Certain games rely on a high level of negotiation and teamwork. There’s evidence these can develop social and emotional intelligence.
Other games rely on a combative strategy where you analyze an opponent’s patterns in order to find a strategic advantage. The US military has found evidence that such games improve tactical intelligence.
And pursuing the same logic, one could argue that more action-oriented games do indeed enhance more instinctual kinds of intelligence, spatial reasoning, target acquisition and locational analysis among them.
Intelligence isn’t just one thing. Different kinds of games enhance different forms of intelligence.
Where Will Games Take Us?
Over the course of human history, our games have grown in sophistication and complexity. It’s interesting to ponder where our game obsession may one day take us!
Are we progressively training our collective intelligence to obtain bigger and better things? And if so, what impact will this have on the arts, business and the sciences? Perhaps our gaming obsession will be one crucial piece of the puzzle in making our lives a little less nasty, brutish and short.
At the same time, not all our games are about elevating our condition. Not by a long shot.
We’re a militaristic species. An overwhelming proportion of our games are about warfare, combat and finding new and inventive ways to gain the upper edge against an opponent. We’d be naive to imagine our games will only promote peaceful outcomes. It’s probably insightful that Ender’s Game is suggested reading for new military recruits (if you haven’t read it, put it on your bucket list).
Games undoubtedly nurture our intelligence. And there’s every reason to think games will ultimately expand what we’re capable of as a species.
But — because isn’t there always a but! — it’s probably wise to remember that, with intelligence alongside almost everything else, it’s not just about what you have; it’s also about what you choose to do with it.