Improve Brain Function by Playing Super Mario and Other Video Games, Science Says

Video game critics love to point out the negative effects associated with the games, such as their addictive nature and reported link to violence. However, despite the constant bad rap the 100-billion-dollar industry gets, there’s now some good news for gamers: playing may help keep your brain healthy.

In a small study published in the journal PLOS ONE, researchers found that older adults who played 3D platform games, like Super Mario 64, had more gray matter within their hippocampus—an important region of the brain associated with memory—after playing the popular action-adventure game.

“3D video games engage the hippocampus into creating a cognitive map, or a mental representation, of the virtual environment that the brain is exploring,” study author Gregory West, an assistant psychology professor at the University of Montreal, said in a statement.

West and his colleagues conducted a six-month experiment, which involved 33 adults who were randomly assigned to play Super Mario 64 on the Nintendo Wii gaming console, take piano lessons or neither. To understand how the games impacted the participant’s brains, they underwent MRI scans and took cognitive performance tests.

12_7_Super Mario In this handout image provided by Nintendo of America, Satoru Iwata, president of Nintendo Co. Ltd., gives the keynote address at the Game Developers Conference March 2, 2011 in San Francisco, California. Iwata announced Super Mario in 3D for the Nintendo 3DS portable video game system. Kim White/Nintendo of America via Getty Images
The brain scans revealed that those who played Super Mario 64 had an increased amount of gray matter in two regions of the brain—the hippocampus and cerebellum—but those who played the piano, did not. Previous research has showed that as we age, the gray matter in our brains declines.

"The good news is that we can reverse those effects and increase volume by learning something new, and games like Super Mario 64, which activate the hippocampus, seem to hold some potential in that respect," West said.

Although the authors note future studies should be conducted, they’re hopeful that their research could help better understand Alzheimer’s disease, “since there is a link between the volume of the hippocampus and the risk of developing the disease,” study author Sylvie Belleville, a psychology professor at the University of Montreal, said in a statement.

Participants in the video game group also showed signs of improved memory, which was assessed through a test involving memorizing sequences of sounds. A 2015 study among younger participants, had similar results to the current research. The study—which was published in The Journal of Neuroscience—found that college students who played Super Mario 3-D World, improved their memory after only two weeks of playing.

"By playing video games that actually center around these kind of complex, 3D worlds," Dane Clemenson, a postdoctoral scholar-fellow at University of California, Irvine's Center for the Neurobiology of Learning & Memory, said in a video, "you're exercising the same processes that you would use to learn about real-world space."

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