Video games aren’t the first choice when it comes to IQ-increasing activities. In addition to studies claiming that video games dumb you down, there’s a general negative attitude towards video games that sports and analog games don’t receive. But let’s pause for a moment and think about that presumption.
It’s long been accepted that chess has intellectual benefits. This old-school board game improves recall by teaching players to memorize move sets and encourages stronger strategic thinking skills. Chess’s brain-boosting effects are deeply intertwined with its reputation, making it the subject of cool shows like The Queen’s Gambit and Searching For Bobby Fischer.
But if this is how chess improves your mental abilities, then why isn’t there a similar air of intellectualism surrounding an online CCG like Gwent, an independent card game that’s based on the same Gwent from The Witcher games? Similar to chess, Gwent requires its players to memorize decks and how they’re played in order to anticipate their opponent’s moves. There’s even an entire subgenre of games explicitly named “strategy games.”
The truth is that video games are the next sleeper hit in learning. There’s already research being done to use video games as teaching tools in mainstream education. But while we wait for games to be taken seriously, we can go ahead and enjoy these games that are healthy for your brain.
Let’s kick off our list with something conventional. 2048 is a math-based game that presents you with a board of tiles. Each of the tiles contains a number that you can slide around the screen. Matching numbers to each other combines them into their sum (i.e. 2 tile into 2 tile results in a 4 tile). The goal is to keep adding the numbers up to keep at least 1 tile on the screen empty. When all spaces are consumed by a tile, it’s game over.
How it makes you smarter: 2048 improves your number sense by encouraging you to anticipate the answers to mathematical problems. While playing, you’ll discover that the game’s mechanics are centered around square roots. A study on math games found that students who played a math game actually developed stronger number sense than students who didn’t.
Next time you need to prep for a math test, consider picking up 2048 for a pre-study warm-up. You can play 2048 over at Games for the Brain for free.
An adventure game may not be the first thing you think of when it comes to games that can make you smarter. But it’s easier to understand how Undertale can sharpen your mind when you read its tagline: “UNDERTALE! The RPG game where you don’t have to destroy anyone.” The retro-style RPG game is known for its pacifist route that lets you talk your way out of potentially sticky situations. Rather than fighting your way through every enemy, the game encourages and rewards you for choosing to compromise and collaborate with enemy NPCs.
How it makes you smarter: Undertale teaches players key interpersonal skills. While we tend to think of social skills and intelligence as separate things, there’s more to intelligence than just being book smart.
Psychologist Howard Gardner framed intelligence as a multi-dimensional skill that comes in nine different flavors. His Theory of Multiple Intelligences includes interpersonal intelligence, a kind of intelligence that describes a keen understanding of social dynamics, relationships, and a good sense of how others might feel or think.
By rewarding pacifist playstyles, Undertale subverts the established game mechanics that reward us for aggression and punish us for compromise.
3. Europa Universalis
For Europa Universalis, the grey matter-boosting part of the game is all about strategy. The game lets you take the reigns of a nation and guide it towards the path of victory through conquest and technological advancement. The game requires players to think each decision through with extreme care, as even small decisions can snowball into disastrous consequences down the line.
How it makes you smarter: Strategy games like Europa Universalis force you to use several of your mental faculties to get a favorable result. Researchers Herman Spitz and Emilia Winters found that strategy games use different facets of your intelligence. You visualize moves in order to anticipate your opponent, and the amount of information you have to stay on top of at any given time means you end up sharpening your short-term memory rehearsal, a process by which you repeat information to yourself.
Europa Universalis also has players make use of their executive functioning skills. Executive functioning refers to a set of mental skills related to self-regulation, organization, prioritization of tasks, and even the single-minded focus to see things through. If you’ve played any strategy game once, you can see how that’s basically what strategy games are all about.
4. Alter Ego
Unlike the other games on our list, Alter Ego requires a lot less of attention and active participation. Alter Ego is a clicker game that has you collect blue butterflies and dialogue bubbles containing excerpts from great works of literature. Admittedly, a clicker game isn’t the most engaging kind of game and doesn’t usually require you to use your brain for anything other than moving your hands.
So, what makes Alter Ego different?
How it makes you smarter: Alter Ego is a mobile game that’s set up in a way that leads the player to introspection. As you play the game, you’ll find yourself resonating with at least a few of the excerpts that it uses in its text bubbles. The more active moments of the game are spent in a different screen with Es, a young woman obsessed with books who asks you thought-provoking questions regarding your identity and values.
In this way, Alter Ego creates an environment where players can hone their intrapersonal intelligence, which is another kind of intelligence from Howard Gardner’s Theory of Multiple Intelligences. Intrapersonal intelligence covers skills related to knowing yourself, your motivations and desires, and metacognition.
Metacognition, as a form of higher-order thinking, helps you see the bigger picture, pick apart information, and apply that information to different contexts. This less direct form of intelligence helps us assess our understanding of information and identify the processes involved in how we think and why we think a certain way.
Games and Alternative Intelligences
Intelligence is usually thought of as just book smarts, being good at math, or knowing a lot of trivia. But intelligence covers a lot of areas that aren’t necessarily tied to academics. Hopefully, this article has helped you see and appreciate the other forms of intelligence that you may be strong at.
If you want to try out some games that may not make you smart, but are certainly tons of fun, check out “Classic Retro Games You Can Now Play For Free” for a list of cool old-school games with a side of history.