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3D Video Games Can Improve Your Memory

A new study found that being immersed in a 3D game stimulates the hippocampus.
Image: Screenshot from Super Mario 3D World

"Brain training" and other means of cognition boosting still feel a bit like snake oil, and the Federal Trade Commission would tend to agree. But what if a way to boost your short-term memory was right in your game console this entire time?

A new study published in the Journal of Neuroscience found that 3D video games can improve memory retention in humans. Researchers from the University of California at Irvine's Department of Neurobiology and Behavior traced those improvements in spatial and visual memory back to activity in the hippocampus, the part of the brain responsible for the spatial navigation and memory formation. When immersed in a 3D game, the hippocampus becomes stimulated, making subjects more adept at memorizing spaces and creating mental maps of their surroundings.


Researchers have stimulated that same part of the brain in virtual reality in experiments giving mice digital mazes to run through—3D environments, even manufactured ones, seemed to sharpen their memories into memorizing spaces. Now it seems the same stimulation happens to humans when entering an immersive 3D game.

To test this, the researchers conducted a series of experiments with 3D and 2D games, to see if the 3D element, or some sort of immersion, was responsible for boosting the brain's memories. One experiment, for instance, asked subjects to play Super Mario 3D World and Angry Birds for at 30 minutes daily over the course of two weeks. Another monitored a group of players playing League of Legends (3D) and Super Smash Brothers Brawl (2D, relatively).

After playing these games, the subjects were then usually given an image-based memory test (MST-LDI, shown below), where subjects were asked to remember a set of images and say whether an image in a following set was included in the first. These subjects were also asked to navigate through a virtual version of a Morris water maze, which tests for spatial learning and memory.

The researchers found that subjects who played 3D games performed better on those memory tests than those who only played 2D games. You can see those results in how Super Mario players outperform Angry Birds players on visual memory tests over a two week period:

"It is quite possible that, by explicitly avoiding a narrow focus on a single or small set of cognitive domains and by more closely paralleling natural experience, immersive video games may be better suited to provide enriching experiences that translate into functional gains," the paper states.

While the evidence suggests that 3D games benefit memory in a way that 2D games can't, the study also warns against lumping traditional video games in with games specifically designed for brain training.