Playing games and being social have more benefits than you may think, including many benefits for our brain. In the WAM Weekly, we asked Founder and Executive Director of UC San Francisco’s Neuroscape, Adam Gazzaley, MD, PhD, how games can change the brain and which to play.

WAM: Research shows us that there is power in play, not just for children, but also adults. What are the benefits of playing games as it relates to brain health—and do games fulfill different functions depending on our age?

Gazzaley: Play is a such core part of being human, and there are important benefits that can come from it, in addition to having fun – influences on mood, stress, and connection with others. At our UCSF research center – Neuroscape – we have been intentionally developing video games as new tools to improve the function of our brain. We have shown the benefits of our games in helping older adults to focus their attention. There is a lot more work to be done, but we are optimistic that we will continue to advance innovative game development and rigorous scientific research to advance a new category of medicine for the mind, which I call experiential medicine. This medicine is based on the neural process of brain plasticity, which allows our brain to continue to improve its function in response to experiences throughout our lives. 

WAM: Is it the games themselves that are valuable, or the fact that we are playing them with or against others? Is the notion of competition important—or social interaction?

Gazzaley: Play and games are a special type of experience that can induce benefits through many different mechanisms. The challenges and the rewards can drive very specific brain changes, and the interactivity between players can also have numerous benefits, not the least of which is to reduce loneliness and isolation. What an amazing way to bring generations together!

We are learning how games that involve spatial navigation impact the hippocampus, a brain region which is involved in memory formation. We are now exploring how virtual reality navigation games improve function in this part of the brain to help offset memory decline in our senior years. We have learned that games with a basis in meditation can help with attention and stress. And physical fitness games, both video games and sports, have a host of benefits for our aging brains, not to mention positive effects induced by social interactions. 

WAM: The use of online video games has skyrocketed since the pandemic began, forcing most of us indoors. Are these games a good and healthy way to stay engaged with family and friends who may be far away? And are there certain games you think offer greater value to our brain’s needs than others?

Gazzaley: Online video games are a great way to stay connected with family and friends while the pandemic drives us indoors. I play online games with my family across the country. The ability to laugh and have fun together is so valuable. I would suggest not overthinking which are the best games for your brain. There are many scientists working to figure this out, and the answers are not all there yet. For now, find games that are fun and make you feel good. That will go a long way.  And remember to smile ; )