How Games Help Your Brain Stay Flexible

Family Video GamesAs the parent of a gamer, finally beating the first level of your child’s favorite video game can feel like a huge personal accomplishment. Most likely, you’ve struggled through hours of false starts, failed attempts, and almost-victories, all while facing the snickers and jeers of your digitally-gifted offspring. When at last you make it past that first level, you feel as though you’ve mastered the game.

However, when you keep trying to use the same strategies you’ve used on level one, something terrible happens. You die. And then you die again. And again.

Finally, after about ten minutes of frustration, your eight year old daughter says, “Mom, I’ll show you how to do it.” You watch her whiz through level one. On level two, she changes her strategies and approaches so that she can jump over obstacles with deftness and ease, and then moves onto level three. You watch her play level three and how she displays a whole new set of required strategies to move forward in the game. After ten minutes, your daughter is not stuck on level one, but is working on level six.

What you just observed is your child applying the thinking skill of Flexibility to a video game. She adapted and changed her approach as the conditions evolved and recognized that one solution did not fit all situations. In all likelihood, she had learned from her mistakes while playing the game earlier. In that case she was also using the thinking skill of Working Memory to remember which strategies had worked, on what levels they worked, and also how to apply them on various levels.

Now you might be asking yourself: How did she know what to do, which buttons to push, or how to time her jumps? Some of this clearly comes from gaming experience, but some of it also comes from applying what she learned in one situation, e.g. playing one game, to playing other games. The capacity to generalize this skill is an example of what we would call “near transfer.” In this case, her brain was able to flexibly transfer what she knew from one setting to another that was a close approximation to the previous setting.

If you really want to make video games help your child’s  brain stay flexible,. you have to learn to recognize the skills they are using in the games.  They can help you to learn how to beat the game yourself (if you are so inclined)  by using those skills.  Getting them to think beyond simple controller  actions to consider the thinking skills that they are using will help them to understand how these strategies assist them in beating many different games. So while your kids can teach you a great deal about beating a video game, you have the chance to use your interests and questions about gaming to teach them even more important real-world skills.

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