In addition to increased visual realism, modern video games may also bestow upon its consumers certain cognitive perks. As a recent article published in The Journal of Neuroscience suggests, 3D video games may improve participants’ memory in a way their boring old 2D games don’t.

Neurobiologists Craig Stark and Dane Clemenson at the University of California Irvine undertook their study with a cadre of undergraduates. The participants were chosen specifically for their unfamiliarity with video games, to ensure a blank slate with no experience bias. The novice gamers were then divided into two experimental groups, each assigned to play a commercially available 2D or 3D game: Angry Birds or Super Mario 3D World.

The students received two weeks of “training” in their respective games, playing half an hour a day for two consecutive weeks (and presumably earned the easiest research participation points of their academic careers). Before and after their two weeks of intense mandatory video game time, participants in both video game groups and a control group (who were not required to undertake any tasks over the two-week period) were given a visual memory task. The 3D gamers showed a significant improvement in performance on that task after their brief period of time with Super Mario; neither of the other groups did.

The object-recognition memory test administered to the students, during which they were shown a set of objects before later being asked to distinguish those same objects from unfamiliar or similar but slightly altered objects, required use of the hippocampus—the region of the brain most associated with learning and memory. A comparison of pre- and post-video game scores for the 3D group showed an impressive increase in memory performance: about 12 percent across the group. That figure is not only statistically significant, but also coincides with what researchers have estimated to be the amount of memory loss humans naturally experience between the ages of 45 and 70.

More surprising than the difference between the gamers and the non-gamers is the lack of memory benefits Angry Birds seemed to bestow on the 2D video game group, although Clemenson’s previous research with rodents provides a clue as to why that may be. Just as rodents encouraged to physically explore new environments demonstrated increased neuron growth, players immersed in a three-dimensional world with richer detail and more complex visual-spatial stimuli may experience the same boost. Although the environment is artificial, 3D video games seem to provide an adequate substitute for real-world exploring, which may be more challenging for some people than it is for rats in a controlled lab setting. Stark also suggests that the sort of video games developed principally for entertainment purposes may even have a certain advantage over the popular, but generally unscientific, “brain training” games marketed specifically as memory aids: “It’s quite possible that by explicitly avoiding a narrow focus on a single … cognitive domain and by more closely paralleling natural experience, immersive video games may be better suited to provide enriching experiences that translate into functional gains.”

Despite the encouraging results of their study, Stark and Clemenson are hesitant to heap too much praise on video games as a cure for memory loss. There is a marked difference in improving the memory capabilities of college students in their intellectual primes, and slowing—or even reversing—the mental aging process those students are likely to experience thirty years on. In the meantime, however, it looks like there might be not be much harm in exchanging that crossword puzzle for a controller once and a while.

[h/t PopSci]