Big Question: Can playing games make us smarter?

Curiosity contributor Diana Bocco took a look at how games affect our brains -- the truth may surprise you.

Next time you feel tempted to ask the kids to turn off their video games, you might want to consider this: Some people think video games can actually make you smarter [source: ABC News]. One of the reasons for this is that video games require you to make strategic decisions, which in turn can help develop problem-solving skills and prepare you for the type of fast decisions you need to make to succeed in the real world. Other experts feel that video games can help build critical thinking.

Surprisingly, video games can also be a good tool for learning social skills. This is especially true of multiplayer online games that require collaboration among players in order to succeed and reach an objective [source: Sanders]. Many games have their own forums and bulletin boards, where players can connect with each other and build a sense of community. Perhaps more importantly, video games can be an excellent tool to teach kids that failure is OK and that you can always dust yourself off and start again [source: Sanders].

Some companies are even using video games to train their employees. New technologies, such as 3-D gaming and virtual interaction, can be invaluable tools to help train workers in proper customer interaction and procedures.

Not everyone agrees that video games are good for you, though. A 2011 study published in the journal Frontiers in Psychology says the relationship between video games and cognition is not clear and more studies are needed before we can really say, "Play video games and get smarter" [source: Boot].

So what about games not of the video variety? For years, crossword puzzles have been designed as great "brain boosters," but experts believe they're not really effective in improving intelligence because they make use of knowledge you already have, so they don't have any effect on cellular building blocks in your brain [source: Begley]. Neuroscientist Yaakov Stern of Columbia University believes video games might be more effective for older adults, as they boost mental agility, reasoning and short-term memory [source: Begley].

While games and puzzles might not make you smarter, they can keep your brain agile. Among the elderly, leisure activities such as playing board games can help reduce the risk of developing dementia [source: Verghese, M.D., et al]. Puzzles, crosswords and other mental games might have a similar effect, as they keep the brain engaged.