Is Learning New Games Good for Your Brain?

I learn and teach a lot of board games. It recently occurred to me that learning a new game engages my brain in a way that hasn’t happened since I was in school. And not just learning the game, but remembering all of the rules. A gamer’s brain is a veritable library of game rules.

Is learning new games good for your brain…or does it just take up space that would otherwise be occupied by something more important?

It’s Good for Your Brain

Learning a new game must be good for your brain, right? It doesn’t matter that what you’re learning is an artificial construct (opposed to, say, learning a new language or studying history). You’re activating neurons that would otherwise lie dormant, which is important for preventing Alzheimer’s.

Also, as @eCreasman mentioned on Twitter, games are great at engaging the problem-solving parts of your brain. This is more about playing a game than learning it, but it’s worth mentioning, as I think the act of playing games is educational.

It’s Just Taking Up Space

Sure, you’re keeping your brain active, and you like playing games–that’s great. But it’s like if you spent hours and hours learning a made-up language–you’re brain is working, but you’re expending energy and memory on a false construct. Again, it’s a fun false construct, so there’s nothing wrong with it, and I will happily continue to do something. But I shouldn’t jade myself into thinking that my brain is any better off after learning a game.

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What do you think? I lean towards the former (it’s good for your brain). If it were truly black and white–that is, if I spent the same time learning new languages and studying history or programming languages instead of learning games–maybe I could argue that using my brain for memorizing a rulebook isn’t as effective as more concrete educational pursuits. But that’s not how I would spend my time. I’d probably be napping instead.

So I say it’s good for my brain! Do you agree?


7 Responses to “Is Learning New Games Good for Your Brain?”

  1. It’s a bit like learning calculus I think. I rarely, if ever, use the equations I learned in calculus in my day to day life, yet nobody would say I fruitlessly pursued further in my education by learning it.

    Same with a board game. The intricate rules engage your brain. Much like a warm up lap before exercising, doing mental gymnastics is always good.

    Learning game rules and strategy and logic keeps us engaged mentally. Sometimes we can even apply the logic we used in real life, but not at a 1:1 scale, much like calculus.

    This is before even learning social contracts required for gaming itself. So yes…it’s a worthwhile pursuit. Keeping your brain engaged, even in something with little “real world” redeeming value, is a good pursuit. Nobody scoffs at a person reading fiction…we prize those who read for fun, and ask people to continue reading into adulthood to keep mental acuity. Even if it’s throwaway fiction, or game rules, if it’s interesting and keeps us engaged mentally, it’s worthwhile…because I’d never sit around and do calculus for fun.

  2. Jason Brooks says:

    I see learning a new game as building new muscle – “brain muscle” in this case… whereas playing a game is like using or flexing that new “brain muscle”.

    The first time somebody rides a horse, they often ache afterwards because they have to use muscles they haven’t used before. Learning a new game similarly triggers the use of new muscles. The more you do it, just like any activity, the more comfortable you become.

    At Mensa Mind Games last April I had to learn how to play over 30 new games (and played them) in a ~72-hr period. It was simultaneously exhausting and invigorating to do so and I can say with confidence my brain was better for it. It might have been boardgaming’s equivalent to a triathlon!

    • “Brain muscle”–I like that! My counterargument (albeit a weak one) is: Is it good for you to stretch brain muscle in this way (i.e., get better at learning something) if that something is purely for entertainment? We’re essentially learning a made-up language when we learn how to play a board game. 🙂

  3. Steve Klemish says:

    I strongly believe that learning new games does help maintain cognitive function. As a primary care physician I frequently work with patients who are at risk of, or are showing signs of, dementia. With these people one of our recommendations as to “learn something completely new and foreign to you”. And the examples we typically use are Learning a foreign language, learning to play a new musical instrument, learning to dance, etc. although I have not seen any scientific studies to validate this, I strongly believe that learning new and varied boardgames works in a similar fashion.
    Perhaps this is in part the way I rationalize my belief that my hobby and the (Admittedly sometimes excessive) time I spend gaming is good for me. Not to mention helping to feed my acquisition disorder!
    Nonetheless I do still believe that the “mental gymnastics” sometimes involved with learning new and varied games, helps build “mental muscle”.

    Another aspect of this is that gaming is fortunately a social activity and therefore builds social relationships. Scientific studies have well established that persons with many social Relationships/Interactions have a lower risk of dementia.

    So my humble recommendation is, play more board games! It’s good for your brain! That’s my story and I’m sticking to it.

    • Jamey Stegmaier says:

      Thank you for sharing, Steve. I love the idea that we can ward of dementia by learning something new, especially given the hobby I’m passionate about. 🙂

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