BY: KATE SLOAN
Some people say video games rot your brain, while some say they quicken your reflexes and beef up your problem-solving power. But it’s possible the truth is somewhere in between. New data show that while video games can measure intelligence almost as well as standard IQ tests, it’s still unclear whether they can actually make you smarter.
The San Francisco-based company Lumos Labs claims their subscription-based web app, Lumosity, can boost users’ cognition and memory. Lumosity consists of 40 games designed to increase functioning in various different areas of the brain. Their multi-platform advertising campaign even implied that their product could help users avoid the cognitive decline that results from aging or Alzheimer’s disease. Subscription fees range from $15 per month to $300 for a lifetime membership—seemingly a small price to pay for a service that could drastically change your life.
But earlier this month, the Federal Trade Commission announced they’d settled with Lumos Labs over accusations of deceptive advertising. The company was ordered to pay $2 million to the FTC to atone for their unfounded claims. In addition to the financial remuneration, Lumos Labs is required to provide an easy way for users to cancel their subscription in light of the findings. The FTC also demanded Lumos Labs present reliable scientific evidence for any future assertions they make about the health-related benefits of their product.
Lumosity’s website says the company did a study to prove the efficacy of their app. Half of the study’s 4,715 participants did the Lumosity training program for 10 weeks while the other half did crossword puzzles, and the Lumosity group outperformed the crosswords group on cognitive assessments at the end of the experiment. “These results are promising, but we need to do more research to determine the connection between improved assessment scores and everyday tasks in participants’ lives,” the Lumosity website admits. “That’s our next focus.”
Further damning Lumosity is an investigation that CBC’s Marketplace conducted in April 2015. The TV series partnered with neuroscientist Adrian Owen to put 54 people through Lumosity’s brain-training program for two to four weeks each. Researchers found no significant differences between participants’ cognitive functioning assessments before and after the training.
It’s worth noting that there is some evidence for video games’ positive effect on intelligence. Past studies have shown that some games improve players’ reaction times, spatial processing and short-term memory, to name a few. But these studies have mostly shown only weak correlations between games and increased overall intelligence, leading some people—like those at the FTC who called out Lumosity’s “deceptive advertising”—to question the usefulness of games in this area. “Getting good at a game rarely translates any skill to anywhere except that game itself,” said Toronto-based video game developer Damian Sommer in an email interview.
Whether or not games can increase brainpower, though, seems testable. A 2015 study in the psychology journal Intelligence found that video games could assess “general intelligence” almost as well as standard IQ tests. Scientists put 166 undergraduate students through intelligence tests as well as a session of playing 12 different video games for the Wii and PC, most of which were found in the Wii’s Big Brain Academy game bundle. Researchers found a strong correlation between intelligence scores and video game performance, controlling for participants’ past video game experience.
Games that test visual, spatial and analytical skills are particularly indicative of intelligence, the study found. Furthermore, the study authors say that if a game aims to be good at testing intelligence, it must be at least moderately complex, fairly different from one practice session to another, and it must not make use of cognitive skills that players could have obtained previously. The best intelligence-predicting games, then, will tend to be visual or spatial puzzle games that don’t resemble visuospatial problems one might encounter in real life. Damian Sommer recommends Snakebird and Sokobond, two spatially-focused puzzle games, if you’re looking to assess your own intelligence through games. “They’re a direct test of understanding simple rules and then testing your spatial reasoning skills within them,” Sommer explained.
Video games and other interactive technologies will only become more prevalent as time goes on, so it’s important that we study how these technologies can best be used to our advantage. Services like Lumosity are great in theory but require more evidence to back them up and more honing to make them effective. Education can be expensive but software doesn’t have to be, so if companies can develop games that really do make people smarter, then it could be a global game-changer.