Jennifer Wagner, 52, a blogger in New York City, is addicted to playing
games like Wurdle, Bejeweled, and Cup O’ Joe on her iPhone. She discovered them
when her husband and college-age sons talked non-stop about gaming apps after
getting the iPhone in December 2008.
“They make me think,” she says, “and I find that relaxing. Because I’m
concentrating on the game, my mind is cleared of everything else, which rarely
happens, so I love that feeling.”
Like Wagner, many boomers have caught the bug, buying and downloading games
in droves, often competing against players half their age. A customer survey
conducted by PopCap Games, the maker of Bejeweled and other online games with
an estimated 150 million consumers, found that 71% of its players are older
than 40, 47% are older than 50, and 76% are women.
Recent research has shown a link between playing a complex strategy game
like Rise of Nations and improved memory and cognitive skills. Other studies
have demonstrated that older brains can focus better when properly trained
using games. So the results suggest that players may be getting a bigger payoff
than just mastering the
Some games like Brain Age and Happy Neuron claim to provide a mental workout
by improving memory, quick thinking, and visual recognition skills. Others like
Guitar Hero and Rock Band sell the physical and fun aspects for everyone,
regardless of age. The Beatles: Rock Band game, which comes out Sept. 9, is
betting on its nostalgic appeal for boomers and seniors.
Playing certain video games can help improve split-second decision making,
hand-eye coordination, and, in some cases, auditory perception, says Ezriel
Kornel, MD, of Brain and Spine Surgeons of New York in Westchester County.
“It’s actually a very complex set of tasks that your brain is going
It’s not enough, though, to just pick up a game and play it for a few
minutes, Kornel tells WebMD. You have to actually improve at it -- and to
improve you have to be learning.
“Anytime the brain is in learning mode,” Kornel says, “there are new
synapses forming between the neurons. So you’re creating thousands of
connections that can then be applied to other tasks as well.”
The brain-boosting benefits depend on the type of game, says Anne
McLaughlin, PhD, psychologist at North Carolina State University. “They’ve
tried games that didn’t work,” she says. “For example, you might think that
people learn to rotate things really well by playing Tetris. But studies didn’t
find much of an effect. So you got better at Tetris, but you didn’t get better
at parking your car.”
Existing research shows that novelty is a catalyst for learning, McLaughlin
says. “If you’ve done Sudoku your whole life, you’re not doing anything new,”
she says. “Completely new tasks form new pathways in your brain. So it seems
more likely that something challenging and new would be a lot more effective
than something that’s challenging but you’ve been doing it forever.”
With a $1.2 million grant from the National Science Foundation, her research
team is examining what types of games might help slow the effects of aging on
the brain. The four-year study will look at the benefits that may transfer from
solving puzzles in the game universe to the daily grind of the real world.