Can playing WoW improve your brain power?

Older players improve cognitive function through playing WoW

Can playing World of Warcraft maintain or improve your brain power? When it comes to specifics like improving cognitive function, there really haven't been many significant, sizeable research studies that can put hard numbers on the line. WoW player and early onset Alzheimer's disease sufferer Bill Craig would certainly attest to the power of gaming in maintaining brain function -- he's living proof that WoW can be a vital part of a brain-healthy regimen to stretch and maintain cognitive function. (If you haven't already read Bill's story, you owe it yourself to follow that link. It'll make your day.)

So when news of a fresh research project looking at WoW's effects on cognitive abilities in older players started making the rounds in the national media, Bill was one of the first to ping us with an excited email. "Tell us something we didn't already know, right, Lisa?" he crowed. "Guess I might be called a 'pioneer' of sorts, huh?" Indeed, Bill, you're totally my hero -- and look out, because it looks like the scientific world is starting to catch on and catch up to our secrets.

This week, WoW Insider interviews Dr. Jason Allaire at North Carolina State University, who co-authored the recent study showing that playing WoW can boost certain cognitive functions in older adults. Himself a former WoW player and long-time MMO player, Dr. Allaire shares a gaming-filtered view of how his research and WoW interrelate to show that indeed, World of Warcraft can be good for your brain.

Read the results of the study on WoW and cognition.

WoW Insider: Dr. Allaire, I understand you're a WoW player yourself.

Dr. Jason Allaire: Yes, I used to play WoW. I don't currently, but I've played MMOs since EverQuest. I've got friends who still play World of Warcraft, and I played a bit in the last expansion, but then I actually moved to RIFT and played RIFT for a while.

How long have you been gaming?

I started playing EverQuest right about the time I was working on my dissertation. I almost didn't finish my disseration because I was in one of the highest raiding guilds in EQ. (chuckles) We raided about 10 hours a day, so ...

(Editor's note: At this point, raiding guild names were mutually recognized and the conversation veered off for quite some time. We won't bore you with the details ...)

WoW Insider: So is the idea that video games and mental exercises can increase cognitive function still up for scientific debate? I thought we'd pretty much shown it to be true. Is this something that still needs to be verified?

Dr. Jason Allaire: Yeah, I think especially in older adults. They are building evidence that playing particularly first-person shooters improves adolescents' and young adults' reaction times. But there are only a few studies that have looked at older adults. We wanted to do (our research) in older adults because we do aging research but also because older adults is an area that, for about 25 or 30 years, they've been trying to create these interventions that are specifically designed to improve cognitive function.

For the most part, they've been successful. But the problem is that they create interventions that are designed to improve someone's memory -- and it improves their memory, but it doesn't translate to anything in the real world. I might be able to improve a senior's memory performance so (that) instead of remembering five words, they can remember 10 words from a list of 15. But that doesn't mean when they go to the grocery store, they remember their items better or they don't forget to turn off the stove. It doesn't really translate into things in the real world.

When you standardize tests for kids, you teach them strategies and tips to do good on those tests. They end up doing better on the tests, but that doesn't mean they end up doing better in school. It's the same kind of thing.

So in our research and particularly this WoW study, we didn't have them do anything special. We just said, "Go play the game." And just by virtue of playing the game with no direction and no specifics, we're able to improve in particular two cognitive abilities.

And what were those two abilities?

One of those we call attention, where you're able to hold attention; that improved. And also spatial ability -- which I know anyone who plays an MMO wouldn't be surprised (at), because you have to be able to run and use your map, etc. So those two abilities particularly improved, especially for adults who were performing on the lower end, which is not surprising. When you say "lower end," they're still community-dwelling, independently living older adults. We're not talking about people with dementia. If you were to talk to them, you wouldn't be able to tell one person from the other based on cognitive ability.

What is it about World of Warcraft specifically that made it desirable to use in your research?

I was familiar with WoW and I wanted to figure out a way to get paid to play WoW. (laughs) But more importantly, myself and my colleagues, we picked it because we did what's called a task analysis. That's a fancy phrase saying we look at the different things people have to do in the game and we try to figure out which activities require certain cognitive abilities, how complex it is, the different cognitive abilities, etc.


And so we did that -- we actually had a grad student look at it first and do 12 levels starting at Westfall, and she found things like, "These five quests require spatial ability, and these three quests require memory, and you've got to kill these wolves that require reaction time." All the tasks that people have to do in the game are cognitively demanding.

We also picked it because most people could play with other folks. The reason I got this idea is because I made my grandmother to play the game. She was reluctant. I thought she would only play for about half an hour, but after about two hours, she was still playing. And finally she stopped, and she was like, "Whoa, that was really fun ... But I'm so tired! My brain is so -- I need to take a nap. I've never had to think so much!" That got me thinking that it was a good indication that it required a lot of mental energy. And being a player myself, I never logged into EverQuest or WoW or any game and thought to myself after I was done, "Wow, that was relaxing!"

So that's why we picked World of Warcraft.

I'm curious to know how much if any the social aspect played into your choice. It's the social element, after all, that produces so much variation and unexpected complications in the daily game world experience.

We didn't have as much social interaction as we thought. The starting areas are pretty underpopulated, so we didn't have too many. We also didn't encourage it too much because depending what area you go to, all you'll hear is Chuck Norris jokes. But more than anything, (our players) got a kick out of "That's another person sitting in front of their computer somewhere else." They thought that was pretty cool.

We have plans for future studies where we hope to rely more on the social aspect. We're keen to do more with that, maybe some intergenerational things with grandparents.

Were there specific in-game activities that you recommended your participants do?

We just basically said to go play. We did give them, in addition to the tutorial that Blizzard provides, we also told them the purpose of the game. We emphasized doing quests. Most of them participated in doing quests and things like that. But we didn't say, "You have to do a trade skill" or anything like that; we pretty much left it open. And in a future study we're trying to get funded now, we have a whole list of tasks that we want different groups of participants to do.

Among those players who played a little more than others, did the time they spent in game increase the magnitude of their cognitive gain?

We would need a larger sample to determine if those players who played more, gained more. But the research does show in other studies that the more you play, the more benefit you reap. Obviously, that's within reason. You could always get too much of a good thing ...

I did an interview with Men's Health and they asked me, "What's the right number? How much should people play, especially young adults or men?" World of Warcraft obviously gets a bad rap -- ruining marriages and things like that. My answer is always that you should play as much as you want, but you shouldn't start neglecting family and friends and real-life relationships. If you do, you wind up being that stereotypical 45-year-old man who lives in his mother's basement. You kinda want to avoid that.

But people watch TV on average from 8 o'clock to 11 o'clock every night by themselves. They could be sitting next to their spouse or their brother or sister, and they don't say a word to one another. They're just watching TV. You do the same amount of time in a video game where you're interacting with friends from all over the world and you're having to figure out your DPS ... and that's going to be a lot more cognitively interactive than watching, you know, Modern Family or something like that.

Bill Craig

One of our favorite readers around here is a player who uses WoW in his own personal battle against early onset Alzheimer's disease. He finds WoW valuable because he can vary his activity level according to what he feels socially and cognitively capable of that day -- a real plus for someone like him.

True. It's very adaptive. Not only can you vary what you do every day, but depending on your skill level, you could do easy dungeons, or if you're really good, you could do more hardcore or heroic dungeons. That's one thing that has made WoW so popular and so successful is that pretty much anybody can play.

But at the same time, that's been one of the criticisms by hardcore MMO people that say anybody can get to max level in a couple of days and there are a lot of crappy players in WoW. And that's true -- but the good thing is those crappy players can still have a good time and enjoy the game.

What do you think the effects of the aging gaming population will be on MMOs? Do you think that cognitive declines and abilities will eventually be reflected in what players choose to do?

I don't think cognitive decline in a normal population is severe enough to cause people to perform badly in a game. It might tend to make people not want to do the moving around as much. Our sensorimotor abilities do slow down. So I think people do slow down at that.

But I think that what's going to end up happening is that as this huge influx of boomers comes, we're going to have more people playing video games. I think in the video game world, especially MMO (companies) like Blizzard and BioWare and people making those games, have overlooked the 50 and older crowd. In about 10 years, there are going to be more people over the age of 65 and under the age of 20. I think the population of video game players and MMO players in particular are going to increase dramatically. I think what companies need to do is recognize that and not make MMOs for old people -- no one wants a game made for old people, but they want a game where they can take a different path, or even in WoW, (where) you can customize your UI and make your font bigger.

So what's ahead? What will your next research study focus on?

I hope that studies like ours will keep doing a good job of pointing to the positives of playing games like WoW and not the many negatives that are out there that are really not true.

As far as MMOs, we actually want to partner with a video game company. This particular study we did, we actually presented it to Blizzard and sent them a proposal. They considered it, and it got pretty far along in the decision chain, I believe. They decided they didn't want to pursue it ... But what we'd like to do is a very large WoW study where we're able to ... find out what tasks produce the best gains. That's one thing we'd really like to do.

And then we're also looking at doing a study of even StarCraft, where you can make your own maps. What we want to do is create maps that we know will exercise certain mental abilities, and have them be able to play StarCraft on the maps that we make. So we know exactly what they're doing, and obviously we can record all the stuff that's going on.

One of my biggest goals is I would really like to do a large study with WoW or maybe even StarCraft. This was such a small sample. We want to be able to show the people who play ... more, have more of certain cognitive gains. But we can't do that unless we have 100 to 200 people in the study. We're trying to get some funding, so we'll see how that goes.

Best of luck, Dr. Allaire -- and see you online in a game somewhere soon, I'm sure!

"I never thought of playing

WoW like that!" -- and neither did we, until we talked with Game of Thrones' Hodor (Kristian Nairn) ... a blind ex-serviceman and the guildmates who keep him raiding as a regular ... and a 70-year-old grandma who tops her raid's DPS charts as its legendary-wielding GM. Send your nominations to