An image from the role-playing online game World of Warcraft. (Blizzard Entertainment )
World of Warcraft, the world's most popular multiplayer role-playing game, can definitely help you kill time, but can it also make your brain work better if you are of relatively advanced age?
That was the suspicion of Anne McLaughlin and Jason Allaire, psychology professors at North Carolina State University. They run the Gains Through Gaming Lab, which examines how the playing of video games improves cognitive ability in older adults.
To test their theory, the researchers asked 39 adults ages 60 to 77 to play World of Warcraft for roughly two hours a day over a two-week period. They gave the test group a cognitive exam before the two-week period began, and again after the two weeks were up. They also had a control group of adults who did not play the game.
The researchers found that two weeks of playing World of Warcraft didn't have much effect on the cognitive abilities of the people who had scored well on the baseline test, but there was significant improvement in both spatial ability and focus for the participants who scored low on the initial test.
"The people who needed it most — those who performed the worst on the initial testing — saw the most improvement," Allaire said.
The results of the study were published in the peer reviewed journal Computers in Human Behavior.
In an interview with The Times, Allaire said he and McLaughlin looked at several different video games before settling on World of Warcraft as the one they would use for the study.
"It met a bunch of criteria we had," he said. "Primarily that it is really engaging and cognitively complex, so we chose a game that we thought would have the best chance of exercising older adults' cognitive abilities and thereby improving them."
Another benefit to the game is that it has what Allaire described as lots of scaffolding — tutorials that help someone who is not familiar with video games figure out how to make their way around the game. It also has a customizable interface so that text could be enlarged for players who might have trouble reading small print.
Allaire said none of the participants in the study had ever played World of Warcraft before but most of them really enjoyed it, and some continued to play even after the study was completed.
The funding for this project came from a National Science Foundation grant, and not as you might assume, from a grant from Blizzard, the company that makes World of Warcraft.
But that doesn't mean Allaire and McLaughlin didn't try to get some research money from Blizzard.
"Before the study we talked to Blizzard and at the time they said it didn't fit with the direction they are going, so they passed," said Allaire.
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