Playing Super Mario 64 Improved Executive Functioning in Older Folks

a screenshot from Super Mario 64 in which Mario is standing on a checkered floor in front of a brick wall with a painting of Bowser hanging in the background
Image by JJBers / CC BY

It’s funny. My parents are completely responsible for the fact that I play video games now. It was a huge event when they came home from shopping in Portland (not the one in Oregon but the other one, the largest city in Maine, about 2.5 hours south of where I grew up) touting a brand new Nintendo.

I’d never even heard of such a thing when it showed up.

But after it was unboxed and my siblings began to play, and I watched rapt, well… I quickly became hooked.

In those early days, we had a single cartridge loaded with three games: There was Super Mario Bros, of course. I was pretty terrible at it. Had a habit of falling into holes. But my brother and sisters were masterful at it. And I liked to watch.

My favorite was probably the track and field game. You ran on an attached controller, where you could do long jumps and races. And the competition was Olymptics-style. I loved the Olympics.

A close second was Duck Hunt, where you pointed a toy gun at the screen and shot at ducks — and sometimes at the dog who would pop up and laugh at you when you missed.

And later on when my parents gave me my first computer, my father made sure I had games on it. Win, Lose, or Draw and King’s Quest IV: The Perils of Rosella. (The first I found incredibly easy, the second difficult; both hooked me.) Even though I was more excited about having a word processor in my bedroom, having spent many a late night at the dining room table pecking out stories on the family typewriter, Dad made sure there were games.

It’s really funny now, because everything would tip back the other way within a year or two. Where once they’d been excited to introduce us to the games, they later started to complain about how much we played them. It wasn’t that our grades were bad (we were all good students). Nothing like that.

My mother for starters simply found them boring and was annoyed that we spent less time with her. And she viewed the time we spent gaming as having no positive effect whatsoever.

Playing Super  64 Improved Executive Functioning in Older Folks

I’m now at the age (or a little past) that my parents were when they first introduced us to video games. I don’t have any children (an intentional decision), but many of my peers do. So it’s been interesting to me to witness how they view video games, with many of them being gamers themselves. For the most part, it seems like they treat it like any form of recreation. So long as it doesn’t get in the way of responsibilities (like schoolwork), it’s fine. Video games aren’t singled out as particularly likely to rot a child’s brain.

Is this a responsible way of framing things? Or were my parents right to identify it as particularly useless/time wasting?

I recently found a study that argues that maybe my elderly parents would do well to play some video games themselves.

The study, published in Experimental Brain Research, found that playing 3D platforming games (in particular, Super Mario 64) improved executive functioning in a group of older adults (in this case, 55 to 75). Specifically, it helped with a factor called inhibitory control (frontal lobe inhibitory processes are a chief part of executive function).

Huh.

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This post is part of an ongoing Poly Land feature called Psyched for the Weekend, in which I geek out with brief takes about some of my favorite psychological studies and concepts. For the entire series, please see this link.

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Books by Page Turner:

Dealing with Difficult Metamours

A Geek’s Guide to Unicorn Ranching

Poly Land: My Brutally Honest Adventures in Polyamory 

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