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Can playing World of Warcraft make you smarter?

World of Warcraft, the world’s most popular multiplayer role-playing game, can definitely help you kill time, but can it also make your brain work better if you are of relatively advanced age?

That was the suspicion of Anne McLaughlin and Jason Allaire, psychology professors at North Carolina State University. They run the Gains Through Gaming Lab, which examines how the playing of video games improves cognitive ability in older adults.

To test their theory, the researchers asked 39 adults ages 60 to 77 to play World of Warcraft for roughly two hours a day over a two-week period. They gave the test group a cognitive exam before the two-week period began, and again after the two weeks were up. They also had a control group of adults who did not play the game.

The researchers found that two weeks of playing World of Warcraft didn’t have much effect on the cognitive abilities of the people who had scored well on the baseline test, but there was significant improvement in both spatial ability and focus for the participants who scored low on the initial test.

"The people who needed it most — those who performed the worst on the initial testing — saw the most improvement," Allaire said.

The results of the study were published in the peer reviewed journal Computers in Human Behavior.

In an interview with The Times, Allaire said he and McLaughlin looked at several different video games before settling on World of Warcraft as the one they would use for the study.

"It met a bunch of criteria we had," he said. "Primarily that it is really engaging and cognitively complex, so we chose a game that we thought would have the best chance of exercising older adults’ cognitive abilities and thereby improving them."

Another benefit to the game is that it has what Allaire described as lots of scaffolding — tutorials that help someone who is not familiar with video games figure out how to make their way around the game. It also has a customizable interface so that text could be enlarged for players who might have trouble reading small print.

Allaire said none of the participants in the study had ever played World of Warcraft before but most of them really enjoyed it, and some continued to play even after the study was completed.

The funding for this project came from a National Science Foundation grant, and not as you might assume, from a grant from Blizzard, the company that makes World of Warcraft.

But that doesn’t mean Allaire and McLaughlin didn’t try to get some research money from Blizzard.

"Before the study we talked to Blizzard and at the time they said it didn’t fit with the direction they are going, so they passed," said Allaire.

World of Warcraft is Good for Grandparents’ Brains

For many years, researchers have conducted various studies on the effects games and play can have on the aging brain.

Games specifically designed to enhance certain kinds of thinking, like Brain Age, may or may not always have the intended effect. However, a team of researchers have found that perhaps mainstream games, not expressly designed for brain training of any sort, can in fact improve senior citizens’ cognitive ability.

The Los Angeles Times reports on the most recent findings from North Carolina State University’s Gains Through Gaming Lab:

    To test their theory, the researchers asked 39 adults ages 60 to 77 to play World of Warcraft for roughly two hours a day over a two-week period. They gave the test group a cognitive exam before the two-week period began, and again after the two weeks were up. They also had a control group of adults who did not play the game.

    The researchers found that two weeks of playing World of Warcraft didn’t have much effect on the cognitive abilities of the people who had scored well on the baseline test, but there was significant improvement in both spatial ability and focus for the participants who scored low on the initial test.

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World of Warcraft could help your grandma focus

There’s hope for grandma and grandpa in video games. Rolling up a night elf hunter or orc shaman in massively multiplayer online role-playing game World of Warcraft could help cognitive functioning in some older adults, according to a new study from North Carolina State University published online in Computers in Human Behavior.

“We chose World of Warcraft because it has attributes we felt may produce benefits – it is a cognitively challenging game in a socially interactive environment that presents users with novel situations,” says Dr. Anne McLaughlin, an assistant professor of psychology at NC State and co-author of a paper on the study.

Researchers from the school’s Gains Through Gaming laboratory have found that playing WoW can boost spatial ability and focus in adults who scored poorly in those areas prior to spending time with the game. The university had an experimental group comprised of 60 to 77-year-olds play WoW on their home computers for approximately 14 hours over the course of two weeks, then tested their cognitive skills against a control group who didn’t play. When comparing test scores, the study found that the gamers saw a much greater increase in cognitive functioning, although the effect varied according to each person’s baseline score.

“The people who needed it most – those who performed the worst on the initial testing – saw the most improvement,” says Dr. Jason Allaire, an associate professor of psychology at NC State and co-author of a paper on the study.

Pre- and post-game testing showed no change for participants when it came to memory. So while spending time in Azeroth might help grandma concentrate, it apparently won’t help her find her car keys.