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  PopCap’s Healthy Games Research Needs Oxygen  
 
 
Posted 2006-03-24 by Tony Walsh
 
 
     
 
Only a few months following the announcement of a joint research project by PopCap Games and The Games For Health Project investigating the potential cognitive benefits of game play, the underwhelming summary results are now in. In a press release this week, Ben Sawyer, co-founder and director of the Games for Health Project said: "We have reviewed a large base of literature, and what we've found is that, while still in the early stages of scientific understanding, there is growing consensus that defined cognitive exercise can play a critical role in healthy aging. As part of that role, it seems clear that puzzle games, strategy games, and games which aren't as spatially oriented can play a significant role in that effort." Sawyer added that there is not "absolute consensus" on what types of games or mental exercises are ideal, and that it might be ten years before we find out which mental workouts are the best.

The joint research effort included review of "a wealth of research papers and major media stories covering the state of cognitive exercise," and doesn't seem to have involved any live subjects. Although there's value in compiling the research of others, there's far less value in using "major media stories" as serious pseudo-scientific research, and the absence of actual test subjects is unfortunate. When I originally heard about the research effort, I'd assumed the methods would be more rigorous and relevant.

The summary findings of the research effort to date include:
  • "A growing body of consensus based on research that indicates that the mind and memory can be kept healthier and 'sharper' by deliberate mental exercise."
  • "While there is evidence from population studies as to a link between mental activity and lower incidence of dementia/Alzhiemer's/senility etc., it is not certain what it is about mental activity that wards off the biophysical issues related to these ailments..." In other words, exercising the mind may prevent mental degeneration, but we don't know why. No news here.
  • "It is not clearly understood if people who report lower cognitive, social, and physical activity aren't already succumbing to issues of aging in some studies. Further isolations are needed and more longitudinal studies to improve understanding. Interestingly, videogame activity of current generations may start manifest in next-generation studies, but to date there is no major study which identifies and quantifies specific benefits from videogame playing." More uncertainty here, except that we know no studies have found specific benefits from gaming.
  • "Intellectual activities seem particularly 'protective'; people who use leisure time for mind-challenging hobbies were about two and a half times less likely to develop Alzheimer's... television watching is not protective and may even be a risk factor... writing and taking part in group discussions seemed to offer no protection..." Merely a restatement of the first point here.
  • "There is no absolute measurement that exists for cognitive exercise regimens, as not all activities seem to be equally effective in reducing the risk of dementia and other mentally debilitating ailments in all studies. Subjects who often played board games, read, played an instrument or did crossword puzzles were less likely to develop dementia than people who said they engaged in those activities only rarely." More exercise seems better than less exercise. Shock!
  • "A five-year pushback of Alzhiemer's cases across the world would result in a reduction of incidence of the disease in half." Nonsequitor.
  • "The market is moving forward just on the research to date despite no widespread consensus. It is likely that brain fitness will be a $100 million market (or larger) in the next decade if the research grows, validates, and develops a consensus regimen." This is possibly the most interesting statement, but it's pure speculation. I agree there's a future in brain-tickling games, but why stick a price-tag on it?
 
     
 
   
 
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  2 Comments  
 
   
 
Comment posted by andiFM
March 24, 2006 @ 2:43 pm
     
 
I'm not sure if you're asking a bit too much by saying "the absence of actual test subjects is unfortunate", especially given the short time period since the initial announcement. I agree that none of the 'findings' are really news, at least if you're somewhat familiar with the field. I wonder if they are trying to secure funding with these efforts (e.g. from the NIA) to actually do some of their own empirical research (including research participants). To me this would sound like the next logical step.
 
     
 
     
   
 
Comment posted by Tony Walsh
March 24, 2006 @ 2:47 pm
     
 
I am probably expecting too much--I had assumed that any meaningful research effort would have to include live subjects. According to the press release: "The Games for Health Project will be moving to further phases of this work over the next two months. This will include interviews with leading researchers, further literature review, and a final assemblage of the knowledgebase."
 
     
 
     
   
 
 
     
 
     
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