If you are an adult who has ever been told by a partner or colleague that you are “too old to be playing video games,” then they may well have a point. A new study – using a video game as a test – has found that people over the age of 24 are past their peak in terms of cognitive motor performance.

Generally, the researchers behind the new study observe, people tend to think of middle age as being around 45 years of age – around the time when age-related declines in cognitive-motor functioning become obvious.

But there is evidence that our memory and speed relating to cognitive tasks peak much earlier in our lives.

However, data on this is limited because most scientific studies examining the relationship of cognitive motor performance and aging focus on elderly populations, rather than when the decline in performance actually begins.

The authors note that some researchers have investigated the origins of cognitive motor performance decline but have only used simple reaction time tasks to measure performance.

The new study – carried out by two doctoral students from Simon Fraser University in Burnaby, Canada, and their thesis supervisor – is built around a large-scale social science experiment involving the real-time space-faring strategy game StarCraft 2.

The data for the study came from the researchers replaying and analyzing 870 hours of gameplay from 3,305 StarCraft 2 players aged between 16 and 44.

In the game, players have to successfully manage their civilization’s economy and military growth, with the objective of tactically defeating their opponent’s army.

All aspects of gameplay occur in real time, so the player is required to make a large number of adjustments continuously, and they must carefully make decisions and develop overall strategies in a manner that the researchers compare to chess or managing an emergency.

Attention to detail and fast reaction time are both important components of successful gameplay.

screenshot from starcraft 2Share on Pinterest
Attention to detail and fast reaction time are both important components of successful StarCraft 2 gameplay.

The researchers analyzed the following variables of gameplay:

  • Looking-doing latency (similar to reaction time)
  • Dual-task performance
  • Total reported hours of StarCraft 2 experience
  • Effective use of hotkeys
  • Effective management of view-screens/maps.

Complex statistical modeling then allowed the researchers to arrive at meaningful results relating to the players’ game behaviors and response time.

“After around 24 years of age, players show slowing in a measure of cognitive speed that is known to be important for performance,” reveals lead author and doctoral student Joe Thompson. “This cognitive performance decline is present even at higher levels of skill.”

But there is hope yet for you older gamers. Because – parallel to the cognitive performance decline in the over-24 year olds – Thompson and his colleagues noticed the older players adapting naturally to their cognitive disadvantages.

“Our research tells a new story about human development,” claims Thompson.

Older players, though slower, seem to compensate by employing simpler strategies and using the game’s interface more efficiently than younger players, enabling them to retain their skill, despite cognitive motor-speed loss.”

By efficiently manipulating the use of hotkeys and multiple screens, the older players were able to make up for their delayed speed in executing real-time commands.

“Our cognitive-motor capacities are not stable across our adulthood,” suggests Thompson, “but are constantly in flux.” He considers that the results of this study – his doctorate thesis, which is published in PLOS One – demonstrate how “our day-to-day performance is a result of the constant interplay between change and adaptation.”

In January, Medical News Today reported on a study that linked slow reaction time to risk of early death.