The Power of Play: The Effects of Portal 2 and Lumosity on Cognitive and Noncognitive Skills

Jacob Umans, Meenu Johnkutty

    A recent study conducted at Florida State University investigated the efficacy of Portal 2 (a video game) and Lumosity (a brain-training program). This study analyzed problem solving, spatial skills, and persistence in participants of the study who spent eight hours either playing Portal 2 or Lumosity. The researchers found that Portal 2 provides certain cognitive benefits, whereas Lumosity provided no such benefits.

    Even the occasional video game player has heard the trite, overused comment that video games “rot your brains.” But, video gamers can now take pride in their hobby because a new study has shown that one video game, Portal 2, has outperformed Lumosity, a popular brain training website, in a study in their effects on cognition. In their study of students from Florida State University, the team of researchers found a statistically significant difference between the effects of Portal 2 and Lumosity on multiple measures.

    Seventy-seven undergraduate students were given one of two games to play: Portal 2, a 3D puzzle-based game, or a collection of training exercises from Lumosity. All of the participants were between the ages of 18 and 22, and consented to the study before participating. The students were prescreened before playing as well. If the student had played Portal 2 before, was susceptible to motion sickness, or self-reported as a frequent video game player, he or she was not approved for the study. This allowed researchers to avoid confounding variables (variables that they are not testing for) affect the overall results. The population group was made up of 43% male gamers and 57% female gamers. Once approved for the study, all the subjects were randomly assigned to play either Portal 2 or Lumosity.

    In order to identify the effects of Portal and Lumosity on the brain, the researchers gave the test subjects a battery of tests both before and after the study. In these tests, researchers analyzed both problem solving and spatial skills. Within these larger constructs, researchers used a variety of tests to measure subject performance. In addition, they looked at persistence, using a self-report in the pretest and a distinct test in the posttest. This experimental setup allowed them to analyze improvement of the test subjects after play. Between taking the pretest and posttest, the test subjects spent eight hours playing one of the two games over three different sessions.

    The results indicate a statistically significant difference between the effects of Portal 2 and Lumosity on problem solving construct (all of the tests analyzed together), with Portal 2 players showing higher results. There was also a sizeable differences found with spatial skills construct. In the posttest, persistence was tested by comparing the times students spent attempting to solve impossible problems, prior to the students realizing that the problems truly were impossible. This metric also proved to be a win for Portal 2.  Additionally, an enjoyment survey was also conducted, which showed a significant difference between the Lumosity and Portal 2 groups. Those who played Portal 2 reported being happier than those who played Lumosity.

    When comparing pretest and posttest results, the researchers found no significant improvements in problem solving skills in participants playing either game. The results showed that Portal 2 players showed some improvement in spatial skills, but this improvement was not observed in all tests for spatial skills. In contrast, no significant differences were observed in any spatial test for players of Lumosity.

    The results for the study suggest that playing Portal 2 can have a sizeable impact on a limited number of cognitive skills. As included in all experiments, the control group for this study was actually the Lumosity group. Using Lumosity as a control condition would counter any placebo effects, because all participants would come into the study thinking that their cognitive skills would be improved significantly. Lumosity, with its pervasive advertisement as a brain-training tool, would be a better control than Tetris, which is commonly used as a control in video game studies.

    These results reveal that learning is more complex than many may imagine, and indicate that brain training apps may not be as applicable to certain skills as the programs claim to be. Nonetheless, this is only one study focusing on very specific parameters; this study does not categorically say that all video games are beneficial. Furthermore, this paper suggests that the cognitive benefits of Portal 2 are limited, and benefits provided by many other games have not been proven to exist. Taking all of this into consideration, playing video games for eight hours before a big exam may not be the best idea.



  1. Shute, V. J., Ventura, M., & Ke, F. (2015). The power of play: The effects of Portal 2 and Lumosity on cognitive and noncognitive skills. Computers and Education, 80, 58–67. doi:10.1016/j.compedu.2014.08.013 The YNCA would like to thank the authors of this study for generously providing us with permission to use this article, and for providing valuable feedback.

Jacob Umans

Jacob Umans

Jacob Umans is an aspiring physician-scientist in the Stanford University Class of 2020. As a cofounder of the IYNA, he is passionate about science education and hopes to share his excitement about all subfields of neuroscience -- especially glial biology and neuroimmunity -- with students around the world. He hopes to go on to earn an MD/Ph.D. after graduating from Stanford and to use his clinical experience develop a research focused on developing a better understanding of and improved therapies for neurodegenerative diseases. Outside of neuroscience, Jacob is an avid fan of puns, table tennis, and reading.

Meenu Johnkutty

Meenu Johnkutty

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