Can World of Warcraft Improve Cognitive Ability?

In the past few years, there have been exciting and promising studies involving interventions for improved cognitive performance. Some researchers hope that such interventions will one day be able to prevent or delay cognitive decline. Video game interventions, which attempt to improve cognitive ability through video game play, have drawn much attention and enthusiasm. A recent study in which older adult participants played the popular World of Warcraft (WoW) online role-playing game, contributes to this literature by highlighting how such interventions may be particularly useful for individuals with lower cognitive skills.

Among younger adults, video games have been shown to lead to improvement in visuo-spatial skills. Researchers have only recently begun to examine the potential benefits of videogames for older adults, in part because this population is less likely to play video games than younger adults. However, video games are a promising area for cognitive interventions because they have been designed to be engaging and challenging. Multiplayer games such as WoW are especially promising as they include a social component.

The study included 39 participants between the ages of 60 and 77. Participants were assigned to either an intervention group, who spent 14 hours playing WoW at home over a two week period, or a control group. Before and after the two-week period, the intervention and control groups were given a variety of cognitive assessments that included tasks relating to spatial orientation, memory, perceptual speed, and ability to concentrate. A drawback acknowledged by the authors was the fact that individuals could not be randomly assigned to the two groups, due to difficulty recruiting a sufficient number of participants who owned computers with the technical capabilities needed for WoW. However, there were no significant differences on pre-test cognitive performance, age, or health between the two groups.

Following the two-week period, individuals who played WoW showed statistically significant improvements in the Stroop Test, a common measure of attentional control. Notably, the degree of improvement on this test was significantly greater among individuals who had poorer pre-test Stroop scores. Similarly, individuals in the WoW group with lower spatial orientation scores at pre-test showed greater improvements in spatial orientation than those who had high scores before the two weeks of gaming. This suggests that older adults with lower cognitive abilities may have more to gain from video game based cognitive interventions. There were no significant improvements seen in the other cognitive skills.

It remains to be seen if games like WoW provide long-term cognitive benefits. However, this study contributes to our understanding of the potential for video games to improve cognition among older adults by suggesting that individuals with lower cognitive skills might find these interventions particularly beneficial. The study was also innovative because it included a pre-intervention analysis of the cognitive demands of the game used in the study.


Whitlock LA, McLaughlin AC, Allaire JC. (2012). Individual differences in response to cognitive training: using a multi-modal, attentionally demanding game-based intervention for older adults. Computers in Human Behavior. E-pub ahead of print.


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