What would you normally define as a ‘mental game’? Do you picture those mental exercise apps or websites directed at the elderly? Well, the definition of mental games is actually a lot broader than that. Surprisingly, you could probably include Star Craft in the category of mental games. You can include first person shooters like Call of Duty in that list, too. This is because, a mental game isn’t defined by what it’s about but rather the mental exercise that’s involved in playing it. A study conducted in Berlin involved a group of adults who were asked to play Super Mario 64 every day for half an hour over a two month period. At the end of the study MRI scans of the subjects revealed an increase of grey matter in the cerebellum, right prefrontal cortex and the right hippocampus. What this means is that their strategic planning, spatial awareness, motor skills and memory all showed improvement. Because Super Mario 64 forced the player to exercise these parts of the brain they inevitably improved.
Puzzle games with time limits are very effective at helping you improve your mental capabilities. Not only do you have to challenge your intelligence with tricky puzzles: you also have to solve them as quickly as you can. There are thousands of ‘Escape the Room’ games online that challenge you with puzzles and quick thinking tasks as well as construct hypothetical scenarios that you have to reason your way out of. You have to break locks, fashion weapons and tools, figure out codes and passwords and if you miss even one item or piece of information you lose the game. What’s also interesting about these games is that they can be translated into real-life scenarios. You can find live versions of escape from the room in Cardiff where you’re literally locked in a room and have to solve puzzles within a time limit in order to get out. It’s these sorts of games that can improve our cognitive function by an impressive amount if we play them regularly in our lives (just as long as we don’t play them too often. It’s all about moderation).
Online and real-time games, as well as games with a time limit, can also help you improve your reaction time and strategy. Sometimes the games could be as simple as ‘spot the difference’. But, when you have to find five differences within thirty seconds you’re practicing your ability to quickly analyse information which is an important part of strategic thinking. First person shooters require players to analyse situations and react quickly. When you’re playing against other people or AIs in hypothetical life or death situations you need to think and plan fast. If you hesitate you lose. The complexity of the controls that is involved in these games also helps people to exercise your motor skills. There are often times more buttons on the controller than there are fingers on your hand, so you need to memorise button sequences and remember what does what when there’s an enemy charging at you and you only have 0.5 seconds to dodge.
Games that exercise our brains are really great at helping us stay focused and think quickly. In small, regular doses they could make a huge difference to the other mental tasks we have to apply those skills to. However, like most things that are good for you, it’s important that you don’t go overboard and neglect exercising the rest of your body. A couple of hours a week should be the maximum amount of time you spend playing games and you should always remember to take regular breaks.