Do strategy games make you smarter?

Who needs a college education when you can just play Starcraft 2 all day?

Do strategy games make you smarter?

Numerous studies have demonstrated a link between smartness and playing strategy games. However, researchers have not been able to conclusively show that playing strategy games causes players to become smarter (correlation is clear, but causation is not).

In this article, I’ll explore what ‘smartness’ actually is, summarize some interesting academic studies that focus on the relationship between smartness and gaming, and discuss whether it’s more useful to think of strategy games as learning tools rather than things that ‘make you smarter’. 

What does ‘smarter’ mean, anyway?

To decide whether strategy games make you smarter, we first have to define what ‘smarter’ means. 

According to Merriam-Webster, which is a much more trustworthy source on the English language than little old me, ‘smart’ is an adjective that can be used to describe someone or something that has or shows a high degree of mental ability. 

So how does one achieve or show a high degree of mental ability? The most obvious way that I can think of is through learning and then demonstrating the results of that learning. 

It’s hard for me (or even clever scientists) to properly quantify the difference between learning and intelligence, but the conceptual distinction is important nevertheless:

Diagram showing the conceptual differences between learning and smartness

You can retain facts, information, or abilities by learning. You can then use smartness (or intelligence) to utilize what you have learned to perform actions and make decisions.

Strategy games, then, could make you smarter in two ways: directly by improving your ability to recall and apply what you have learned, or indirectly by helping you learn.

Smartness and strategy games

Plenty of academic studies on the relationship between playing strategy games and different aspects of learning/intelligence, in particular in the last two decades in which video games have truly entered the mainstream.

For example, a study into the effect of ‘video game training’ on cognitive flexibility was published in 2013 by a team of researchers from London and Texas (a hotbed, incidentally, for video game streamers).

They had observed other studies that suggested action games could increase the speed of perceptual processing and were curious about whether real-time strategy games might have a similar effect on cognitive flexibility, which they categorized as a ‘higher-level competency’.

The results suggested that games that emphasized maintenance and rapid switching between multiple information and action sources (i.e., RTS games) led to a large increase in cognitive flexibility as measured by an array of non-video game tasks.

Many other studies have focused specifically on how RTS games impact older players’  cognitive skills (so listen up if your RTS memories stretch as far back as casual ‘90s sessions on The Settlers III):

Researchers at the University of Illinois, for example, demonstrated that older gamers showed significant improvements in non-gaming cognitive tasks that tested working memory, short-term memory, mental rotation, and task switching after just 23.5 hours of playing RTS games (Rise of Nations, in this case).

The participants also demonstrated significant improvements in measures of gaming performance. I didn’t think to include ‘being a guinea pig in a scientific experiment’ in my article on how to get better at RTS games – some editing may now be required…

It’s not just RTS games that have been put under the microscope: Turn-based strategy (TBS) games are also a regular target for academics interested in smartness and learning. 

There are loads of great TBS games out there, but most studies in this space have understandably focused on the daddy of them all: chess. One such study found that chess players showed better planning performance than non-chess players, especially when encountering difficult problems.  

Strategy games as tools for learning

The studies mentioned above demonstrate correlations between various measures of smartness and playing strategy games, but there’s no consensus on whether such relationships are casual, and whether lab results actually translate to real-world situations. 

Are smarter people naturally drawn toward playing strategy games? Do strategy gamers perform systematically better than others on non-gaming-related tasks at home, at school, or at work?

This uncertainty makes it hard to claim that strategy games ‘make you smarter’, but I think we can say that they appear to help at least indirectly by providing ample learning opportunities.

To be honest, I think this applies not just to strategy games but to video games in general. Adam Eichenbaum, Daphne Bavelier, and C. Shawn Green make this argument well in their article ‘Video games – Play that can do serious good’ for the American Journal of Play

In this article, they show how video games incorporate many best practices identified by those interested in learning: Video games encourage significant time spent on tasks, they incorporate a proper level of difficulty, and they often offer a variability of training. 

Even the most casual strategy games require players to be thinking about multiple elements at any one time, they can be fiendishly difficult, and, from personal experience, I can confirm that a lot of time can be spent playing strategy games.

Screenshot of 1v1 skirmish between vikings and franks on real time strategy game age of empires 2

The game’s content itself can also be a great foundation for learning. For example, when I look back at my school years I can pretty confidently say that endless replaying of the Age of Empires II single-player campaign sparked my interest in history (a subject in which I eventually earned a bachelor’s degree).

It has even been suggested that strategy games could be used instead of IQ tests to measure intelligence given how useful they are as environments for learning.

Do strategy games make you smarter? (Summary)

It’s clear that there is a positive relationship between smartness and playing strategy games. What is less clear is the causal relationship: Are smart people more likely to play video games or do video games make people smarter? 

What can be said with confidence, however, is that strategy games can be excellent tools for learning, given how they require players to train for and complete complex cognitive flexibility exercises. 

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