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Using Games to Build Your Brain

Tyler Gianesini -

'Playing games' is something of a derogatory phrase in American society. After all we're the country of hard work and effort. Bootstraps and all that. It's almost shameful to otherwise use our brains if you ask the wrong person.

They may be right in some cases. Candy Crush might not be that educational. But to deride playing games as a hobby is to overlook some incredible benefits of play.

Playing games is, in my opinion, what we're all doing, all the time. The game of society is an old one, but it's a game. It has rules. It has its own special currency. It has winners, and it has losers. Becoming well known in your office is a kind of game. Keeping aware of what pleases who, knowing who you need to impress and who you can slack off with. Organizing blocks of time to accomplish little 'missions'.

The principles taught by gaming indeed extend to life because learning to play a new game is to learn and perfect a system, and life is full of systems to be analysed, broken down, and perfected.

As such, I find myself successful at breaking down systems because I have always played games. My parents gave me that gift by strongly encouraging games that built either strategic or social skills.

And showing me how to work for a win but accept a loss. Games are remarkable teaching tools, so I thought I would run down a list of some of my favorite family games, and what they can offer an adult or child looking to build up their ability to adapt to new systems.


The classic strategy game starts the list because its benefits are massive. Couples can play, parents and children can play, and you can play it against each other on your phone if you aren't in the same place.

What are the benefits? (via

  • It can raise your IQ - significant improvements in IQ scores have been seen in groups who were taught chess versus those who weren't during the same period.
  • It can prevent alzheimer's disease and dementia - regular brain workouts like chess and other games have been shown to decrease rates of mental decay in those over 75.
  • It exercises both sides of the brain - studies have found that chess experts' brains are engaging both sides when considering chess moves and formations.
  • It increases creativity - Kids from grades 7 to 9 scored higher in all measures of creativity when playing chess regularly than those who did not.
  • It improves your memory - This may be clear enough, but over time you eventually memorize hundreds of formations in chess, learning how attacks look, and how defenses look. Exercising the ability to recall and create new memories often can keep your memory in shape.
  • Improves problem solving - Clearly
  • It improves reading skills - One study found that playing chess actually helped bring a below-average school (as far as reading ability) to above the national average.
  • It improves concentration - Blink and you might miss the giveaway in your opponents movements, lose focus and you may lose the battle that loses you the war. Chess demands focus, and as such can help build it in the same way that meditation can.
  • It grows dendrites - Dendrites conduct signals between neurons, and interaction with others while doing challenging activities has been shown to fuel growth.
  • It teaches planning and foresight - In chess you learn quickly to plan ahead, and how to think on your feet when other peoples' plans start interfering with your own.

Most importantly, you simply ought to know how to play chess. There's a reason it has been around this long.


Scrabble is a game that lacks the nuance and strategy of a game like Chess or Go, but it can make you more intelligent in one key way: your vocabulary.

People who play Scrabble have far greater vocabularies than those who don't, because they are constantly trying to form new words from a limited set of tiles. With most house rules, a visit to the dictionary solves disputes, and that's where you learn new words. Then they come up repeatedly over the course of multiple games, cementing the new word in your head.

Lucky you, this one can also be played in person or via your phone. I used to play Words With Friends and it can be a fun time killer instead of reading headlines about the latest Twitter beef.


While Go is significantly less common than Chess in the US, its place in the Eastern world is equally as dear. While perhaps easier to learn than chess (the rules of movement are simple), it is far more difficult to master.

Which makes it perfect for building brain matter. The strategy of Go is not apparent to the outsider because the strategies are more about shapes than the easy-to-spot patterns of chess. It's a bit ambiguous and demanding to see what's happening in go, and so the requirements to focus and account for many possible attacks and defenses increases dramatically.

The benefits of go share tons of similarities with Chess, so if Chess is not your game, you should give Go a shot. You might just find a new hobby.

Also available on your phone, and while you may have a hard time finding people to play with in the states to learn, there are lots of videos that can help you progress out there.


Oooohhhh Monopoly. The game nobody wants to play, but everyone owns like three copies of.

The thing about Monopoly is that most people give up on it just a little too early. They lose a game, which has taken like five hours, and never want to play again.

The thing is, when you're losing at Monopoly is when you start learning, because you start getting creative. It's about the ebb and flow of Monopoly. You can lose for hours and come back to take the game with the right strategy. You also need to learn to wheel and deal in order to do so.

From Monopoly adults and children alike can learn how to lose with grace, but also how to become familiar with money and budgeting, the long term effects of investment, as well as how to compete in a healthy way.

If you can last a few games without killing each other, the whole family can learn a lot about themselves and the other players over the course of time, which only multiplies the strategies needed to stay competitive.

If you need a copy you'll find one at every garage sale ever.


Some might put Risk down on a list like this, but I'm not trying to teach you tactics alone. Diplomacy is a war game as well, but one based around negotiation, alliances, and betrayals. Think of it as tabletop Game of Thrones. Oh also there's a Game of Thrones game that plays quite like this one, if the licensing appeals to you.

Diplomacy is the game you start playing with your children when you want to begin teaching them the consequences of betraying alliances. How to build lasting ones.

What you learn from this game is interpersonal. You learn about yourself. You learn about how others think when they want to win. While its lessons and benefits are not as clear as those of Chess or Scrabble, Diplomacy might just stand the best chance of teaching you how to succeed in life when vying against those who want what you have.

Diplomacy can teach some of the most difficult lessons life has to offer, while also helping you find your own weaknesses. As such, I can't recommend playing it with young kids, but when the little ones in your life begin scheming, it might just be time to get out Diplomacy and show them the effects of little lies, and big ones.


Those are my top five board games to build brain matter and teach life lessons, what are yours? Let me know in the comments below!


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