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Shocking news: Gaming is good for your brain

Ireland has its own esports research lab that has produced some surprising discoveries


Tim Smithies, a researcher at the Lero esports science lab in UL, wearing a Halo headset. Photo: Don Moloney

Tim Smithies, a researcher at the Lero esports science lab in UL, wearing a Halo headset. Photo: Don Moloney

Tim Smithies, a researcher at the Lero esports science lab in UL, wearing a Halo headset. Photo: Don Moloney

It will come as a revelation to some but Irish research shows playing games is good for the mind. Even more shocking is that the researchers also found that stimulating the brain via an electrical current makes you perform better, producing quicker reactions.

Most surprising of all is that Ireland has a highly regarded lab devoted to studying esports players and how they can improve their skills.

Based at the University of Limerick and part of Lero, the State-funded Science Foundation Ireland Research Centre for Software, the prosaically named Esports Science Research Lab (ESRL) has been running for almost six years and published several papers about cognitive improvement. Its research includes the aforementioned studies on the benefits of gaming and the value of stimulating the brain with electricity before playing.

The professional esports scene in Ireland lags well behind its development in the US, Asia and even the UK, with the global market worth an estimated billion dollars and audiences in their millions watching tournaments in person and online.

But the lack of action here hasn't dampened the enthusiasm of ESRL head Mark Campbell, who also lectures in sports psychology at UL.

"We're certainly the first esports science lab in Europe," says Dr Campbell. "When we do a trawl around the world we really don't find anything similar. Some gaming companies might have some kind of an R&D element. But there's no dedicated esports science research lab that we know. We're in early and ahead of the game."

The ESRL has been financed since its inception to the tune of almost €1.5m by Lero in partnership with Swiss mouse/keyboard giant Logitech, which also sponsors about 50 esports teams worldwide. The growing commercialisation of esports means Dr Campbell and his colleagues regularly field calls from teams and game development companies trying to understand their research.

"A lot of these teams are getting into the idea of developing talent or identifying talented gamers and not just from their rankings or their prize money but more on whether they have the skills and reaction time.

"We call gamers cognitive athletes because they have unique augmented cognitive skills that the normal population don't. They're better decision-makers, they probably have better memory and better visual attention."

The ESRL research involves getting study participants to wear a special headset called Halo for 10-minute sessions before playing. It passes a tiny electrical signal across their scalp in a process called transcranial direct current stimulation (tDCS). The study found an improvement across all skill levels and ages of up to 9pc in some case.

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"You're actually just exciting the cortex of the brain and warming it up before the task," explains Dr Campbell. His team is now considering wider applications for the technology, including how surgeons might refine their dexterity for procedures such as laparoscopy.

He also has an intriguing idea about how Ireland might join the big leagues of esports.

"We know from other countries that better teams are together a bit longer, before they're 19 or 20 and in university. They're probably together from 13, 14 or 15. Esports in schools is certainly the roadmap for getting good competitive teams in Ireland."

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