Learning while having fun: the key to improving cognitive skills is having fun


The proverb says 'business before pleasure' but, if we have fun while playing, our subsequent visual, motor and reading skills improve.   Results from a study conducted by researchers Sandro Franceschini, Sara Bertoni, Matteo Lulli, Telmo Pievani and Andrea Facoetti from the Universities of Padua, Insubria, Bergamo, and Florence, published their findings in the Journal of Cognitive Enhancement under the title Short-Term Effects of Video-Games on Cognitive Enhancement: the Role of Positive Emotions.

Play is essential in the cognitive and socio-emotional development of many animals, including humans. As such, often play is used in teaching and rehabilitation treatments. However, the evolution of this behaviour and the mechanisms that make it functional to improve specific skills remain debatable and unclear. The benefits found while playing games sought to characteristics the game itself and not the generation of positive emotions. More importantly, making the best out of game activity within educational and rehabilitation programs can be used to understand the possible role of emotions in the relationship between play activities and consequent cognitive enhancement.

Investigating what happens to cognitive functions, the research evaluates subjects thirty minutes following the activity carried out with some video games. Experimentation has foreseen a first study involving primary school students who experience motor and reading difficulties. The study asked students to play two more or less dynamic video games (action or puzzle). Researchers assessed their visual, motor and reading skills both before and after playing the game. Students then completed a questionnaire by indicating the game's level of fun and difficulty. Students described how tense, joyful, and excited they felt after playing it. At the end of the session, the more pleasurable and more dynamic the game was, the level of visual, motor, and cognitive performance improved compared to results followed by playing the other game.

The second study asked young adults to play a fighting video game or the same action video game proposed in the first study for 20 minutes on different days. Immediately after playing each game, researchers measured the subjects reading skills, level of anxiety, enthusiasm and enjoyment induced by playing the game. To quantify a more precise measurement, researchers collected samples of alpha-amylase enzymes from the participants' saliva. From the results, it emerged that, regardless of the game's characterization (action or combat), the fun generated by the video game explained the improvement in reading a passage by integrating different semantic information. The subjects read words with or without meaning faster after playing the most stressful video game (measured by salivary alpha-amylase concentration).

Emerging results describe the benefits that fun induces while playing games has on many of our cognitive abilities, visual perception, motor skills, and the skill that defines our species, namely reading.

The two studies have found that the fun induced while play games affect the role in many of our cognitive abilities, visual perception, motor skills and the skill that defines our species, namely reading. Knowing that our emotions influence our cognitive functioning, these studies could have direct implications for updating educational and intervention programmes crucial for our well-being.  On an evolutionary level, the research suggests that the adaptive function of the game not only relates to the testing of behaviour of adult life but of a more general cognitive advantage.