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Invited Session 1: Using Video Games to Enhance Executive Functions Across the Lifespan

Date & Time

Jun 8th at 10:45 AM until 12:15 PM



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There is considerable interest in the use of video games for training of cognitive skills. However, reviews of “brain-training" games have been mixed at best, often failing to find significant effects – or effects that go beyond simple task training. The talks in this symposium will present research on video games that have been shown to effectively support the development of executive functions across the lifespan – from childhood to late adulthood. The overarching questions of the symposium is what works (or doesn't work) when designing video games to train executive functions for different populations, and why?

Using Video Games to Enhance Executive Functions in Children and Adolescents
Children's Executive functions (EF) have been related to a number of important developmental and educational outcomes, including academic success (e.g., Blair & Razza, 2007), social cognition (Hughes, 1998), and problem solving (Fitzpatrick et al., 2014). Because of their importance, there has been considerable interest in developing successful interventions for improving EF in both typical and atypical populations of children (e.g., Kenworthy et al., 2014). Although findings on the efficacy of video games for EF training are mixed (see Mayer, 2014; Powers et al., 2013), there have been some promising results. The current talk will review an ongoing project to develop and empirically validate a suite of video games to significantly improve executive functions in children and adolescence. We will report on findings with young children, ages 6-10, who played the initial version of a video game created to develop the EF subskill of switching. After playing for one hour per week for 6 weeks, children's score on the DCCS (a standard measure of switching) was significantly higher than children who played an art game – furthermore, the difference if EF persisted two weeks after the intervention (Leyrer et al., 2013). We then modified the game to make it appropriate for adolescents (e.g., adding more challenging levels), and found that high-school students who played the game for 20 minutes per week over 6 weeks demonstrated significant improvements on the DCCS, and also had smaller, but significant improvements on the Flanker task (a measure of inhibition). The talk will conclude with discussion of what features of our games may be most vital for successful EF intervention, and presenting next steps, including efforts to train “hot" and “cool" components of EF, the use of VR for EF training games, and Project Hope, a digital intervention for Syrian Refugee children living in Turkey, that included video-game based EF training.

Young Adults Learning Executive Function Skills by Playing Focused Video Games
  • Jocelyn Parong (University of California, Santa Barbara)
  • Richard E Mayer (University of California, Santa Barbara)
The objective of the present study was to determine whether it is possible to design a video game that could help students improve their executive function skill of shifting between competing tasks, and the conditions under which playing the game would lead to improvements on cognitive tests of shifting. College students played a custom video game, Alien Game, which required the executive function skill of shifting between competing tasks. When students played for 2 hours over 4 sessions they developed significantly better performance on cognitive shifting tests compared to a control group that played a different game (d = 0.62), but not when they played for 1 hour over 2 sessions. Students who played Alien Game at a high level of challenge (i.e., reaching a high level in the game) developed significantly better performance on cognitive shifting tests compared to controls when they played for 2 hours (Experiment 1, d = 1.44), but not when they played for 1 hour (Experiment 2). Experiment 3 replicated the results of Experiment 1 using an inactive control group, showing that playing Alien Game for 2 hours resulted in significant improvements in shifting skills (d = 0.78). Results show the effectiveness of playing a custom-made game that focuses on a specific executive function skill for sufficient time at an appropriate level of challenge. Results support the specific transfer of general skills theory, in which practice of a cognitive skill in a game context transferred to performance on the same skill in a non-game context.

Video game training to enhance cognitive control abilities in older adults
  • Joaquin Anguera (University of California, San Francisco)
There are numerous interventions that have demonstrated the potential to enhance cognitive abilities, ranging from the more traditional (e.g., improving one's nutrition or exercise regime) to the more technological (e.g., the use of pharmaceuticals, genetic therapies, neurostimulation). One approach that has been gaining momentum in recent years is the use of interactive digital media, or video games, to augment cognition, typically referred to as cognitive training. Here I will discuss the potential of such approaches to not only improve selective deficiencies in a range of populations that show deficits in specific cognitive control abilities like attention, but also to show transfer to broader indicators of functioning in daily life. To that end, I will describe previous work aimed at remediating cognitive control deficits in healthy older adults, and how the results of that work have subsequently provided a guide for implementing such approaches in a mobile fashion. These efforts will describe the benefit of a targeted attention intervention for a number of distinct populations including older adults with depression to a subset of children with attention deficits. Finally, I will also discuss how such technologies can possibly act in a more powerful fashion for diagnosing such cognitive control deficits in the first place.

Basing the Design of Cognitive Skills Training Games on Developmental Psychology
  • Jan L Plass (New York University)
How can developmental psychology guide the design of digital games to train cognitive skills, in particular, executive functions (EF)? Given the essential nature of EF for important outcomes such social functioning (Miller & Hinshaw, 2010) and academic success (Blair & Razza, 2007), interest in the development of training interventions for EF is high. Games in particular are of interest as they allow the use of game elements that provide incentives for continued engagement with the training task. While many studies are focused on validating the efficacy of EF interventions, the present talk asks what research-based design features will make EF training games more effective.

We based the design of the games and of the value-added design features in (1) the Unity/diversity model describing updating, switching, and inhibition as three related but distinguishable subskills (Miyake et al., 2000), (2) the finding that repeated practice and progressively more challenging activities enhance EF training (Diamond & Lee, 2011), and (3) the notion that tasks involving higher emotional engagement (hot EF) result in higher EF gains than tasks involving lower emotional engagement (cool EF), (Zelazo & Muller, 2002).

The present research sought therefore to investigate the impact of design features such as adaptive algorithms and emotional design (Plass & Kaplan, 2016) on the effectiveness of cognitive skills training games targeting specific EF subskills. Our research found that the games we designed were effective in training executive skills (Homer et al., 2016a, 2016b). We further found the adaptive algorithm to be effective in increasing skills training outcomes and that game variants involving hot EF lead to higher EF gains than variants involving cool EF, especially for children with lower prior EF and older children. Further research on the design and impact of games that target and improve specific cognitive skills is discussed.