World of Warcraft could give your grandparents' brains a boost

Next time you sit down to play some World of Warcraft (WoW), consider having a parent or grandparent take a crack at it, instead — new research shows that the MMO can actually boost cognitive functioning in older adults. Plus, there's a decent chance they'll actually enjoy playing it. What... you aren't afraid of getting your ass kicked by a senior citizen, are you?

"One day I had my grandma play WoW with me, and after two hours she told me she had to take a nap, because she hadn't had to think that hard in a very long time," explained psychologist Jason Allaire, co-author on a recently published paper describing the findings.

"So I thought, why don't we try to find a way to harness something like this so we can improve cognitive function?"

Allaire, along with colleagues Laura Whitlock and Anne McLaughlin, set about doing exactly that. The team started by recruiting 39 volunteers between the ages of 60 and 77 and testing their performance across a variety of cognitive skills, like focus and spatial reasoning. Test participants were then divided into two groups. Members of the experimental group had WoW installed on their home computers, and were asked to put in at least an hour of gameplay a day over the course of two weeks before having their cognitive abilities retested. Members of the control group were also retested in two weeks' time, but they did not play any WoW in the interim.

The researchers found that, as a whole, the WoW group saw a greater increase in cognitive performance than the control group, though improvements tended to vary on a person-to-person basis. Interestingly, the volunteers who saw the greatest improvements in cognitive abilities were those who had scored lowest on the initial, baseline test that had been administered two weeks prior.

In other words, explains Allaire, "the people who needed it most saw the greatest improvements."

Allaire and McLaughlin are co-directors of North Carolina State's Gains Through Gaming Laboratory. In 2009, the two received a million-dollar grant from the National Science Foundation to study how video games might improve cognitive abilities in the elderly.

Allaire and McLaughlin have looked at the cognitive benefits of various video games in the past, but WoW was a particularly attractive option. Players can learn the game at their own pace, it's socially interactive, and gamers can play for hundreds of hours and still find themselves presented with novel challenges.

Of course, you can't dismiss the fact that the game is also pretty fun.

"We had two or three participants who asked if they could keep the game, and as far as we know they've kept playing," explained Allaire. "Most people gave us really good feedback." He continues:

Older adults do like to play video games, and with baby boomers all turning 65 and older in the next ten years, we're soon going to have more people over the age of 65 than under 20. Older adults belong to a demographic that video game companies often overlook, but our research shows that they will play the game, that they're interested in the games, and that they can benefit from them, as well... even in just a couple weeks' time.

Video games get such a bad rap. Just go online and you'll find [a lot of forums saying] Warcraft is addicting, that games ruin marriages, or that they're rife with violence — but this study reveals that there is a measurably beneficial aspect to games, as well. We hope our findings help people see them in that light.

The researchers' findings are published in the latest issue of Computers in Human Behavior.

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