Brian D. Glass, W. Todd Maddox, Bradley C. Love.

This study tested whether playing RTS games increases cognitive flexibility. In 2013, it was already known that playing video games can improve your basic vision and hearing skills. Here, Glass and colleagues wanted to know if it could also improve more complex brain functions: attention, memory, self-control, and most importantly here: multitasking.

“One key question is whether video game play can alter aspects of higher-level cognition [16]. In other words, is video game training limited to promoting “fast perception” or can it also promote “fast thinking”? “

To answer this question, the researchers had their participants play video games for approximately 1 hour per day for 40 days in a row. They separated participants into 3 groups: one group served as a control group, and played the Sims. The other 2 groups played Starcraft. The first Starcraft group (SC-1) played against a computer on a map where you start with one base, and the second Starcraft group (SC-2) played on a map where you start with 2 bases, which requires more multi-tasking. The logic in creating these three groups is to compare the effects of RTS games to a non-RTS game (SC-1 and SC-2 vs. Control), and to compare two levels of complexity within RTS gaming itself (SC-1 vs. SC-2).

“The full-map version (SC-2) involves two friendly bases and two enemy bases, whereas the half-map version (SC-1) involves one friendly and one enemy base and half the available gaming space. In the SC-2 version, the player is commanding and controlling two separate bases in multiple battles against two separate opponent bases.”

To measure if any cognitive functions had improved from playing, all of the participants underwent psychological tests to assess their higher-level brain functions before and after the 40 days of video-game training. The results show a significant increase in performance in cognitive flexibility tasks for participants who played Starcraft, which suggests that playing RTS games specifically improves core multitasking skills.

“Overall, these results are highly supportive of our predictions – RTS gaming selectively promotes cognitive flexibility, particularly under conditions in which players must rapidly switch between contexts while maintaining memory for both contexts.”

This was one of the first studies to demonstrate that video games can improve more than just basic neural functions. It joins a growing line of research showing that gaming changes your brain in significant ways, and can result in high skill gain in many areas.

Abstract (author summary):

“Training in action video games can increase the speed of perceptual processing. However, it is unknown whether video-game training can lead to broad-based changes in higher-level competencies such as cognitive flexibility, a core and neurally distributed component of cognition. To determine whether video gaming can enhance cognitive flexibility and, if so, why these changes occur, the current study compares two versions of a real-time strategy (RTS) game. Using a meta-analytic Bayes factor approach, we found that the gaming condition that emphasized maintenance and rapid switching between multiple information and action sources led to a large increase in cognitive flexibility as measured by a wide array of non-video gaming tasks. Theoretically, the results suggest that the distributed brain networks supporting cognitive flexibility can be tuned by engrossing video game experience that stresses maintenance and rapid manipulation of multiple information sources. Practically, these results suggest avenues for increasing cognitive function.”