Improving Working Memory with Video Games

The following case study is an example of the ways that video games can exercise Working Memory skills. The story itself is a variation of one or more patients I have worked with during my years in private practice. Names, places, and other identifying details have been altered or removed.

Johnny, a nine-year-old 3rd grader, is playing one of his favorite fighting games, Marvel vs Capcom. In this game Johnny encounters a variety of opponents, each of whom fights using a different array of skills.

As you watch Johnny, you notice that he flexibly applies one set of punches, kicks, and other maneuvers to a very hulking and powerful opponent but applies another set of skills to defeat a far quicker, more canny opponent. Beyond displaying signs of flexibility in his approach, Johnny seems to know exactly what to do, what moves to make, what his opponents strengths are, and how to use his controller to defeat each of these opponents.

In this respect, Johnny is clearly using a number of memory skills. These are not what psychologists call simple registration, or short-term memory skills, where Johnny is remembering something he’s just learned. Nor are they necessarily solely the function of long-term memory, where Johnny is retrieving information from his stores of past knowledge. He is also applying Working Memory skills, which means that he needs to remember what to do as he is doing it, and apply his memory as the conditions change for each opponent.

In other words, he must recall his opponent’s previous attacks and be aware of the specific demands he is facing, while simultaneously recalling his own special moves and attacks, which require him to remember specific directional inputs and complicated button combinations.

There is compelling evidence that video game training, that stretches the demands made upon Working Memory, can be helpful in many situations outside of the game. This research suggests that a highly structured protocol of working memory games applied intensively over a long period of time can stretch and permanently improve memory skills. There is certainly reason to believe that the efforts demonstrated by Johnny and his continued reliance on his working memory skills, will prove to be beneficial for him in the future.


One appropriate analogy to working memory training is weight training. If you want to see the benefits of weight training you can’t just join the gym. You need to be aware of when and how your training will help you. Then, you need to choose the best exercises to achieve your goals, go everyday, continue to increase the number of repetitions and amounts you lift, and continue to exercise regularly. If you want video games to improve your child’s Working Memory skills, you need to select games that practice these skills (or use a program such as Cogmed Working Memory), play them regularly, and play harder and harder games that stretch your working memory capacities. To maintain these skills, find real-world opportunities to practice Working Memory such as completing math word problems, playing Sudoku, or following complicated sets of directions.

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