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3 brain games boost memory, focus, and flexible thinking

User playing Gwakkamolé—one of the new digital games. (Credit: Sapna Parikh/NYU)

Three digital games can help children and adults improve their cognitive skills, say the researchers who created them.

They designed and developed the games—available online and in the iOS and Google Play app stores—to help users’ brains work more efficiently. While some games falsely claim to improve cognitive skills, these three games have actually proven to help users boost memory, inhibition, and cognitive flexibility, the new research shows.

“Can games actually have positive effects on players? We believe they can, and we designed three games to support learners in developing cognitive skills that researchers have identified as essential for success in daily life, executive functions,” says game co-creator Jan L. Plass, professor of digital media and learning sciences at the Steinhardt School of Culture Education and Human Development at New York University.

The researchers developed the games as a result of a four-year research project. The goal of the research was to design targeted computer games that improve cognitive skills—specifically, executive functions like memory and inhibitory control. Upon discovering that the games successfully improved executive functions after as little play as two hours, the scholars wanted to make them available to the general public for free.

“While some children have access to the best schools and resources, this is not the case for many families from less affluent communities across the nation. We hope these games can help close the gap that this lack of opportunity has created,” says Plass.

The researchers developed three online games: “Gwakkamolé,” “CrushStations,” and “All You Can ET.” Each of these brain training games support a different executive function.

“Unlike other games, our apps were designed from the ground up by a team of developmental psychologists, neuroscience researchers, learning scientists, and game designers to train cognitive skills,” says Bruce D. Homer, a professor of educational psychology in the Graduate Center at City University of New York.


The researchers designed the first game, “Gwakkamolé,” to train inhibitory control, a subskill of executive functions. Inhibitory control is the ability to control attention, behavior, thoughts, and/or emotions.

The Gwakkamolé title screen shows avocado characters in different hats, from a hard hat to a spiked helmet
(Credit: NYU)

In the game, players are instructed to smash the avocados that pop up on the screen while avoiding any of the avocados wearing hats—some of the avocados in the game have spikey hats, hard hats, or electric hats on top of their “heads.” As a player gets to higher levels in the game, more avocados appear on the screen and the speed in which players must smash them increases.

Each time a player smashes a hatless avocado they gain points, and adversely, they lose points when they smash an avocado wearing a hat. “Gwakkamolé” forces players to focus their attention and respond quickly and deliberately (by smashing hatless avocados) to gain points.


“CrushStations,” which involves crustaceans rather than avocados, focuses on training working memory. Working memory is responsible for temporarily holding and processing information. It plays a major role in how humans use and remember information they learn on a daily basis.

The title screen for CrushStation shows the name of the game and an orange octopus in an undersea environment with fish, coral, and sunken treasure
(Credit: NYU)

To help train working memory, “CrushStations”—which takes place in the ocean—requires each player to remember the color and type of creatures on the screen to free them from a hungry octopus. If a player accurately remembers the color and type of crustacean in front of the octopus, the animal goes free. However, if a player is unable to remember both the color and type of creature, the crustacean is captured and eaten by the octopus. The game increases in difficulty by giving players more creatures to remember and more difficult sequences to process.

All You Can ET

The third game is called “All You Can ET.” The researchers designed this game to train cognitive flexibility—the mental ability to switch between thinking about two different concepts, and to think about multiple concepts simultaneously.

The All You Can ET title screen shows yellow and green floating aliens hovering over cupcakes and drinks stacked on display towers
(Credit: NYU)

In this game, players are providing aliens with food and drinks to help them survive. The challenge in this game is that the aliens frequently change their minds about whether they would like to eat or drink, depending on how many eyes they have and what color their bodies are.

For example, in one round, two-eyed orange aliens only eat cupcakes while one-eye green aliens only drink milkshakes. As the game increases in difficulty, the rules for what each alien prefers to eat or drink changes.

What the research shows

In addition to developing the games, the researchers published a series of articles reporting on the effectiveness of these games.

“We found replicated evidence across multiple experiments that playing our games for two hours causes improvements in executive function skills as compared to a control group that plays an unrelated game,” says Richard E. Mayer of the University of California, Santa Barbara.

“This is one of the few scientific experiments showing the benefits of game-based training on executive function skills such as being able to shift from one task to another or being able to keep track of a series of events. This work shows the benefits of designing games based on the cognitive theory of game-based training.”

As next steps, the scholars plan to continue research and build out virtual reality versions of the games. Together, they have also already edited a handbook of game-based learning. The handbook, published by MIT Press, will be available on February 4th and includes the results from this research as well as a myriad of other studies on games and learning.

The most recent papers appear in Learning and Instruction; Reading Psychology; and Mind, Brain, and Education; as well as two in Cognitive Development (one, two).

The US Department of Education’s Institute of Education Sciences funded the work. The researchers developed all three games at NYU’s CREATE lab.

Source: NYU