You’ve Been Lied To — Video Games Will Not Rot Your Brain

Video Games Are a Learning Tool That Can Teach Programming

If you grew up playing or around video games like I did, you have almost certainly heard it said, “Video games will rot your brain!” or “Video games kill brain cells!”

This was, and continues to be, a common sentiment shared by many people—particularly parents.

But, research shows that the opposite is true.

In a study performed by the Max Planck Institute for Human Development, researchers had participants play Super Mario 64 for 30 minutes daily over the course of two months. The separate control group did not play any video games.

Rather than showing signs of stagnation, the video gaming group showed increases of gray matter in the right hippocampus, right prefrontal cortex and the cerebellum, all measured using MRI. These regions are responsible for functions such as spatial navigation, memory formation, strategic planning, and fine motor skills. These video games actually improved cognitive function!

A Learning and Development Tool for All Ages

As many adults who have tried to learn another language or go back to school later in life have found, learning is much harder as an adult than it was as a child. Children’s brains are like sponges, soaking up the information given to them. They are also much less afraid of failure, which would prevent many adults from even attempting to take on learning a new skill. However, video games are poised in such a place that they can be used by both adult and child to learn a new skill.

With video games, you are able to go at your own pace — something very important for adult learners. They also encourage children to exercise critical thinking, resilience, and creative problem solving.

The teaching ability of video games has not gone unnoticed. Many companies have begun incorporating various subject matter into their games and the most common of these is programming and coding. These games are fun, highly interactive, and actually teach children (or adults) coding and programming skills while solving puzzles.

Human Resource Machine

Tomorrow Corporation
Available on: Android, iOS, Nintendo Switch, Microsoft Windows, Wii U, and Linux

Human Resource Machine is a game that has you take control a of a mailroom worker to sort through an inbox of items. These items are represented by letters and numbers and your task is to combine, sort, or filter them in a predefined way before sending them to the outbox. All this is achieved by using a small subset of commands. After organizing the commands in an order that you think will work, you press play. Your commands are visually worked through by the mailroom worker.

The commands you are given are, in fact, Assembly code. As you solve the problem, you are actually writing small bits of code.

This game is not only teaching you very specific programming commands, but also the idea of Test Driven Development(TDD). TDD is a programming idea that you should write tests for your program first, followed by writing your program and continuing to run it through your tests until they pass. Human Resource Machine enforces this by giving you the tests, and not allowing you progress before your program passes all qualifications laid out by the tests.

Swift Playgrounds

Apple
Available on: iOS

Swift Playgrounds is similar to Human Resource Machine, but is much more up front about what it is teaching you. This game was built to instruct children and adults about the Swift programming language used on many Apple products. You again give specific commands to use and directions to follow in order to build the program.

However, Swift Playgrounds also introduces the idea of methods, which are repeatable bits of code to be reused via your whole program. They do this by giving you these method signatures and allowing you to call into them, seeing that they get carried out each individually and in the order you’ve laid out in your program.

Minecraft

Mojang
Available on: All Platforms

Minecraft is by far the most popular and successful of these titles. It’s the second best-selling video game of all time, only behind Tetris. Minecraft is a sandbox style game that includes exploration, resource gathering, crafting, and combat. While on the surface level, this may not seem like it would relate to programming, the ability to analyze a blank slate and build out an architecture—whether that in a Minecraft landscape or program architecture—is an invaluable skill for developers.

Programming is something that many want to learn, but few start that process. While these games can’t get you writing your own programs, then will certainly help you better conceptualize core fundamentals of programming. And if you can have fun while learning a new skill, what are you waiting for?