That our brains change as we age is no secret, everybody knows that. We also know that some abilities reach their peak in young adulthood, others take more time to “ripe” and reach their full potential around 50. Therefore, an older brain may perform some tasks more slowly, but can master other skills, where the young ones cannot.
For decades, researchers have been studying mental acuity and how it changes throughout our lives by performing a variety of tests, but now there might a new surprising way of telling the difference between young brains and older ones: by looking at competitive video games. Biologist Joe Hanson discusses what researchers have learned about the brain by studying video gamers in a recent episode of the PBS Digital Studios YouTube show “It’s Okay To Be Smart”.
He explains that researchers have been using chess as one of the ways to tell how certain brains are better at processing information than others. But chess’s pace and rule set provide little information about the way our brains work in real world scenarios. So they’ve moved on to studying the real time strategy game “StarCraft II.”
In this video game, players are meant to defeat their opponents by eliminating their forces. There’s much going on on the side as well, with players having to build up their squad by using units to extract materials and simultaneously constructing buildings and other units. At the same time, they need to use their units both to defend their side and to attack their opponents.
All these fast-paced actions that need to be performed by multitasking makes the game a perfect analogue to real world scenarios. Hanson points out that elite players regularly conduct up to 300 “actions per minute” (APM, clicking on a unit or giving it orders) and in battle, they often top 600 APM. This is where younger brains excel.
Moreover, a team of Canadian researchers analyzed how long it took a person to act after they saw a different part of a game map. When comparing this data to player age, they concluded that after turning 24, players began to react more slowly.
However, not all hope is lost for older brains. We know older generally means wiser, so being strategic and smart, able to outthink if not outreact an opponent might be just enough to take down a faster, younger player.