Application-Based Puzzle Games May Improve Executive Function
June 25, 2014

Application-Based Puzzle Games May Improve Executive Function

Alan McStravick for - Your Universe online

Companies like Lumosity have developed a program that they claim can train your brain. With pricing ranging from a simple monthly plan for $11.95 to a Lifetime Membership for $239.96, the people behind the iOS, Android and Web-based platform seem very confident that regular training with their program will present users with measurable benefits in memory, attention and speed of thought.

The Lumosity program is very well put together and may very likely be as good as the company reports. However, a new research study out of Nanyang Technological University (NTU) in Singapore might just save you some money and help you achieve many of the same results.

The research scientists set out to discover which, if any, application-based video games could help in improving the executive function of the brain of the user. Frequent readers of redOrbit may recall a few recent articles dealing with superior executive function among trained musicians and for young students whose schedules were less regimented than their peers.

The reason executive function within the brain is so important is that it aids in rapid decision making that must occur as there are sudden changes in one's environment. You might know this valuable skill as 'thinking on your feet'. While many of us might attribute this useful quality to a titan of industry making a swift business decision or an aircraft pilot dealing with an emergency situation mid-flight, executive function is important to everyone's day-to-day life. A suitable example offered by the research team deals with the common situation of approaching a stop light as it unexpectedly turns to yellow. In that instant, you as the driver have to decide whether to maintain your speed to make it through the intersection or to quickly apply the brake and bring your vehicle safely to a stop.

Leading the study was assistant professor Michael D. Patterson accompanied by his PhD student Adam Oei who decided to test four different mobile platform games. This study built on their previous research which had shown different video games effectively trained different skills.

The four games employed in this study crossed styles and genres. They were the first person shooter game Modern Combat, a typical arcade game represented by Fruit Ninja, a real-time strategy game, StarFront Collision and the complex puzzle game Cut the Rope.

Participants for the study were selected among the NTU undergraduates who were also not gamers. For the study, they were made to play their game for an hour a day, five days a week for four weeks. Over the period of 20 hours of gameplay on their iPhone or iPod Touch devices, the participants were observed for any improvement in their executive function.

According to Patterson, the students who played Cut the Rope seemed most to excel at tasks measuring executive function. The other three groups showed no discernible increase in executive function as a result of their new found gaming habit.

“This finding is important because previously, no video games have demonstrated this type of broad improvement to executive functions, which are important for general intelligence, dealing with new situations and managing multitasking,” explained Patterson, himself an expert in the psychology of video games.

“This indicates that while some games may help to improve mental abilities, not all games give you the same effect. To improve the specific ability you are looking for, you need to play the right game,” added Oei.

After reviewing Cut the Rope, an application that can be downloaded from the GooglePlay store for .99 cents or from the Apple's App Store for $2.99, Patterson hypothesized the value of the game is likely due to the unique puzzle design. Unlike many other puzzle games, as one progresses in levels strategies used to achieve the next level are ineffective. This forces players to have to think creatively and try alternate solutions. Other puzzle games will attempt to increase difficulty merely by speeding up the game play and/or increasing the number of items to keep track of.

It was determined that participants in the Cut the Rope group were able to switch between tasks 33 percent faster and were 30 percent faster at adapting to new situations. Additionally, they presented a better than 60 percent ability at blocking out distractions and focusing on the tasks at hand than they did before the 20 hours of game training. To ensure these were not temporary gains for the students, the three-test battery was administered a week after the 52 students had finished playing their assigned games.

Currently available online, the study is scheduled to be published in August in the journal Computers in Human Behavior. This, say the researchers, is the first study that showed broad transfer to several different executive functions. These results will, no doubt, be referenced as being further evidence that video games can be effective in training human cognition.

“This result could have implications in many areas such as educational, occupational and rehabilitative settings,” stated Patterson. “In future, with more studies, we will be able to know what type of games improves specific abilities, and prescribe games that will benefit people aside from just being entertainment.”

Future study by Patterson and Oei could likely focus on whether there is any improvement from playing such games in experienced adult gamers or if these results are solely noted in new and inexperienced gamers. Also, it might be interesting to know if a longer game play trial would yield even more impressive results with regard to improved executive function.