‘Minecraft’ Does Good Things for Your Brain
Exploring and building in a virtual world develops memory and spatial awareness
Standing between us and the castle was a red knight with a sword. He appeared angry — inasmuch as a heavily pixelated figure can show emotion — and was headed in our direction. I turned to my daughter and suggested we take a different, less confrontational path. She nodded, and we hurried along the far side of a large lake.
This was the first time my young daughter and I had entered the 3D virtual world of Minecraft. The images are simple — the scenery, the buildings, and the characters are all made up of colored blocks — and yet the game is vast and the first-person perspective is immersive.
It must be. Figures released by Microsoft last year — who bought the game from creators Mojang in 2014 — claim 112 million people enter the virtual world of Minecraft every month. It is the best-selling video game of all time. Indeed, it has been so popular that a new augmented reality version, known as Minecraft Earth, has also been released.
And yet, just last year, the World Health Organization recognized excessive gaming as a risk to mental health. Dr. Susumu Higuchi, addiction specialist at Kurihama Medical and Addiction Center in Japan, sees patients who “are generally unable to limit the time they spend gaming and continue to play despite negative consequences,” he says. But the risks must be balanced against the potential benefits of interaction in an imagined world.
What effect does time spent exploring a virtual world have on the human brain?
A recent study by neurobiologist Gregory Clemenson and his team at the University of California, Irvine, attempted to provide the answer. “We previously found that playing the 3D video game Super Mario 3D World Tour for two weeks could improve hippocampus associated memory,” says Clemenson.
The hippocampus, a region of the brain embedded deep within the temporal lobe, is responsible for forming long-term memories and spatial awareness. Such functioning is key to both cognitive development in children and the management of daily tasks in adults. A young child has to find their way around the house and an adult must locate their car…