Designing Video Games for Cognitive Development

Video games provide great fun for young players, but Professor Bruce Homer (The Graduate Center) is more interested in how they can help with cognitive development. In a new co-authored article published in the journal Cognitive Development, he showed how game design can be equally important — and useful — when it comes to cognitive development.

Homer and his team were particularly interested in adolescent “hot” executive function (EF), or critical thought processes that arise in emotional situations and therefore require greater self-regulation. People aren’t born with EF — they develop it with age — and critical hot EF developments take place in adolescence. Could video games be specifically designed to arouse EF, the team asked, and could that design be harnessed to help with development?

As it turns out, yes. The researchers asked participants to play one of two video games: The first was designed to trigger an emotional response, whereas the second was emotionally neutral. They found that the former did indeed arouse hot EF in participants. “The results provide an example of how developmental theory can inform the design of effective games for learning and cognitive skills improvement,” they concluded.

The paper appeared in a special edition of the journal, which explored how digital playgrounds (social media, interactive games, apps, and more) intersect with cognitive development. GC Professor Colette Daiute co-edited it with Professor Carol D. Lee from Northwestern University. “As the artificial capacities of digital systems support people in using ever-more complex symbol systems to mediate what are ultimately human plights, the diverse roles of designer and player make take new forms,” they wrote.

Homer’s previous research on video games arose out of Project Hope — a collaborative endeavor that uses online games to promote learning. He and other researchers worked with Syrian refugee children to understand how video games could help them adapt to new cultures and acquire new languages.