Teen Wins $3M in Fortnite Competition, But Do Games Help the Brain?

Playing video games might build cognition skills

By Jonny Lupsha, Wondrium Staff Writer

A 16-year-old from Pennsylvania won $3 million in a Fortnite tournament, The Washington Post reported. The popular, online video game pits 100 players against each other per match, with just one winner. Is gaming good for the brain or just for the prize money?

 Gaming computers with colorful theme
Neuroscientists are studying the effects of brain-training games such as video games. Photo by OHishiapply / Shutterstock

According to the article in The Washington Post, 16-year-old Kyle Giersdorf, from Pottsgrove, Pennsylvania, left the Fortnite World Cup solo competition with a large trophy and $3 million. The tournament was held at Arthur Ashe Stadium in Flushing Meadows, New York, and started with some 40 million hopefuls. Some video game publishers claim that their titles can be beneficial to your brain—and not just your bank account—but does that argument hold any water?

Near Transfer

Some video games are marketed as “brain-training games,” offering simple puzzles and exercises like Sudoku, memory mini-games, and more. The developers and publishers of these games market them as being able to improve players’ cognitive function. In psychology, the transmission of skills and information we receive from various stimuli is known as “transfer.”

“Transfer comes in different forms, but where brain-training games are concerned, we want to know about near and far transfer,” said Dr. Indre Viskontas, Adjunct Professor of Psychology at the University of San Francisco and Professor of Sciences and Humanities at the San Francisco Conservatory of Music. “Near transfer refers to benefits that you might see in tasks that are very similar to the video game that you’ve been training on. Far transfer is the holy grail—can playing a set of video games make you smarter in many different ways?”

The quick answer is yes—and no. On the upside, Dr. Viskontas said that performing and practicing any task surely leads to improvement of that skill or similar skills, which is near transfer. “Just as becoming proficient in piano playing can give you enhanced performance on other fine-motor skills, playing a video game designed to build your working memory can sometimes improve your performance on a similar working memory task,” she said.

Far Transfer

Unfortunately, when it comes to far transfer, Dr. Viskontas said it’s a different story. “The problem is we haven’t seen evidence of lasting or significant changes in a person’s general cognitive function in daily life, even with extensive brain training,” she said. “In other words, we lack evidence that brain-training games produce any far transfer benefits, including preventing dementia.”

Dr. Visktonas added that studies or companies have made claims of positive effects of their brain games on cognitive function, but the relative newness of these games and their respective studies suggests those claims are either exaggerated or misleading—or both. “Their effect sizes are generally small to moderate and there is still ongoing debate amongst neuroscientists about what these effects mean,” she said. This is because results of tests on brain-training games can be hard to prove for several reasons. For example, when participants in a study are told they’re going to be practicing improving their brains through video games, their motivation to learn and do well may increase, thus positively altering their results—though not because of the games themselves.

On the one hand, so-called brain-training games aren’t exactly the miracle cure for neurodegeneration that they claim to be. However, they can improve near transfer, or the transmission of skills similar to those practiced in the game. Also, the satisfaction and relaxation that come from playing simple puzzle games aren’t the worst way to spend some downtime. Just don’t count on ending your gaming session $3 million richer.

Dr. Viskontas is an Adjunct Professor of Psychology at the University of San Francisco.

Dr. Indre Viskontas contributed to this article. Dr. Viskontas is an Adjunct Professor of Psychology at the University of San Francisco and Professor of Sciences and Humanities at the San Francisco Conservatory of Music. She completed her Ph.D. in cognitive neuroscience at the University of California, Los Angeles.