How Playing Video Games Make Me a Better Man
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Health & Fitness

How Video Games Make Me a Smarter, Better Man

Not just for kids, this diversion is brain food for Gen Xers

Animated cartoon of man playing a video game and his brain is comically getting bigger
José Fatkinson

Like anyone in their 50s, my formative years coincided with the arrival of video games. As a kid, I dropped entire rolls of quarters into the Asteroids machine at the local arcade. In college, Tetris filled my study breaks. After that, my video game history gets a little hazy. Caught up in career-building in my 20s, I largely left gaming behind.

It wasn’t until my 40s, when I became a parent, that video games reentered my life. 

My young daughter started dabbling in Minecraft, the game that tends to get a pass from parents for its educational gloss. She soon moved on to Fortnite, the $5 billion–a-year battle-royal behemoth. 

Wanting to vet it, I began playing with her, first in a supervisory capacity and then full-on with squads made up of her and her friends. As kids do, she grew tired of the game and moved on. But I was hooked. 

The only problem was, I didn’t enjoy playing with random 10-year-olds. By chance, someone invited me to check out a group called Fortnite Over Forty. It was a refuge for people like me who’d largely been abandoned by their kids but still wanted to play. 

I signed on and soon began competing in weekly tournaments, joined by players (men and women) from across the globe. We knew one another only by our log-in names, but our association had the makings of a community.

Fortnite, like many other video games, is dominated by the young. But does the first generation that grew up with games simply leave them behind for good, or might there be reasons to indulge the vestigial itch? 

It’s clear that many do. In an AARP survey, nearly half of adults over 50 reported playing video games at least once a month.

For many inveterate gamers, it’s the social aspect that appeals. Allie Eberhardt, who runs a tech company in Rye, New York, notes that he spent much of his 50s in a highly engaged, “clublike” gaming scene. 

He fell in with a group of a dozen or so guys, from all walks of life — “there was a chicken farmer from Delaware,” Eberhardt recalls — who would meet up a few times a week, a sort of poker match with combat-grade weapons. He’s now 63, though he insists gaming keeps him feeling like he's 20.

Still, there’s no avoiding the vague stigma around video games. My wife, for example, has certainly raised a suggestive eyebrow after I’ve emerged from several hours of intense gameplay, even though she’s content for us to burn the same amount of time bingeing television shows. 

It can certainly be an issue in relationships — video games have been cited in divorce proceedings — and I’ve heard, more than once, a partner on the other end of a headset telling someone it’s time to step away from the screen.

But, as I’ve tried to tell my wife, there is a rich and growing body of research showing that video games can enhance all sorts of cognitive and perceptual abilities — something increasingly important as one ages. 

Dane Clemenson, a research scientist at UC Santa Barbara, notes that one of the first brain areas that begin to degrade with age is the hippocampus, the locus of memory. 

One way to increase hippocampal growth is through the rich cognitive complexity that comes with exploring new terrain. “The brain can actually grow,” Clemenson says.

In a game like Fortnite, you're not only navigating a large landscape but also communicating with others, processing huge amounts of visual and mental information, and, yes, shooting. 

Importantly, it stresses adaptability. “No two Fortnite games are the same,” Clemenson says. “You can’t just mindlessly work through some kind of process.” 

In other words, it’s not like GPS, which is what Clemenson calls passive navigation, in which you’re being told where to go and what to do.

Maybe it’s time to close Waze and fire up a game of Fortnite.

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