‘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 keys and plan a route to work. A poorly functioning hippocampus can cause problems in day-to-day functioning.
“Individuals with mild cognitive impairment display a loss of hippocampal volume, indicating that the hippocampus also plays a role in the maintenance of normal cognitive functioning,” says Courtney Gilchrist, a researcher at RMIT University, Melbourne in a 2018 article appearing in the Lancet.
And yet, appropriate learning and experiences can positively impact the brain. “The hippocampus has been shown to be particularly susceptible to environmental enrichment, with effects ranging from the generation of new hippocampal neurons and synapses to an increased expression of neurotrophic factors,” says Clemenson. Or, to put it simply, time spent engaging with one’s environment impacts the physical structure and connections in the brain.
Like life, there are no clear rules, no right or wrong, no winning or losing. The choices made become the game.
Research into London taxi drivers — who, on average, take two years to learn the complicated tangle of London streets in order to pass an entrance exam known as “The Knowledge” — reveals highly developed memory centers among this population. “Our results suggest that the ‘mental map’ of the city is stored in the posterior hippocampus and is accommodated by an increase in tissue volume,” says neuroscientist Eleanor Maguire of University College London.
For his team’s follow-on study, Clemenson chose Minecraft because he wanted to test people in a gaming environment that could be controlled but that reflected the limitless complexity of everyday life. Minecraft provides an endlessly unfolding landscape where players can interact with one another and their environment. Like life, there are no clear rules, no right or wrong, no winning or losing. The choices made become the game. “It is a simple, endless open world filled with mountains, deserts, forests, and oceans for users to explore, create, and make their own,” says Clemenson.
For two weeks, 82 newly trained participants in the follow-up study — neither regular gamers nor those familiar with Minecraft — played for 45 minutes a day. They were each given an identical environment, without enemies, and asked either to build or explore. The online death of their character only occurred from falling off a cliff or swimming in lava. Just like the real world, bad choices and accidents turn out to be life-limiting.
Playing video games in virtual environments can be used to develop and maintain the functioning of both memory and spatial awareness.
Players were rated according to the amount they explored on a daily basis and their success in a memory test known as the mnemonic similarity task after two weeks — a standard approach used by cognitive scientists to score the function of the hippocampus. This involved matching images presented to them in a test phase against images previously seen in a learning phase. Some were novel, while others were similar to those previously seen.
According to Clemenson, their research “found an improvement in hippocampus-associated memory from pre-test to post-test.” Similarly, “the degree of improvement was tied to both the amount of exploration of the Minecraft world and the complexity of the structures built within Minecraft.”
Clemenson’s research suggests that playing video games in virtual environments can be used to develop and maintain the functioning of both memory and spatial awareness. The richer the environment and the engagement, the greater the mental benefits.
With this in mind, there is potential to use virtual worlds to help those who are less mobile or have deteriorating memories. The study was repeated in 2019, with 50 older adults with an average age of 68.5. Clemenson found that “playing video games for four weeks can improve hippocampal-based memory in a population that is already experiencing age-related decline in this memory,” he says. The findings highlight the “real potential of using video games as a therapeutic intervention for age-related cognitive decline,” he says.