The Best Video Games for Brain Training

By on September 15, 2015

I’ve discussed a few times in the past how beneficial playing computer games can be for your brain. And I’m not talking about ‘brain training’ games either (go away Nintendo Brain Age!). I’m talking good-old platform games and shooters, which have a proven ability to improve everything from spatial awareness and visual acuity, to reaction times and decision making (1). One study even went as far as to suggest that gaming can enhance consciousness, focusing on the fact that games encourage lucid dreaming among other things (2). Then there’s the very cool fact that the military reportedly use gaming tournaments to recruit people to man their drones..

So this made me wonder: which commercial video games might be best for brain training?

There’s not really much research on this question, so the list below isn’t particularly scientific or official. This is just a collection of awesome games that require rapid reactions, decision making and attention. In theory at least, you can enjoy playing these and you may find they also provide cognitive benefits… At the very least, they’re fast-paced enough to provide you with some real challenge.

Bullet Hell Games

ANY bullet hell game will give you a tough time and provide you with an opportunity to test your reflexes and focus. Bullet hell games are renowned for filling the screen with gigantic swarms of enemies and even more bullets. You end up like Neo, dodging around bullets in seeming slow-motion and pulling off incredible feats. Bullet hell games test you to the point where your only chance of survival is to enter into an almost trance-like state and in a cool video, the Idea Channel went as far as to suggest that these games might be meditative. I don’t know if I’d go that far but they could certainly trigger some form of hypofrontality/flow-state.

What are some good bullet hell games? There’s anything from Treasure (Radiant Silvergun or Ikaruga being a good examples), there’s the awesome Geometry Wars 3, or there’s the slightly weirder Bangai-O. My favorite of all though is only loosely defined as a bullet hell game and that’s the incredible Bleed.


Super Hexagon

To me, Super Hexagon is the ultimate brain training game that isn’t a brain training game. This is a ‘twitch game’ that requires split second reactions and attention, all in a very simple format. It helps that it’s highly hypnotic and trippy with an awesome score.

The most interesting part to me though, is the pattern recognition and the decision making aspect. Over time, you begin to recognize sequences of shapes on an unconscious level and eventually you learn to dance through them on autopilot. To do this though, you often have about half a second to decide whether you should go left or right to get to the right spot fastest… It’s this type of training that may lead to the improved decision making skills that studies report. Likewise, it’s this type of decision making that could save your life in a dogfight.

I’m actually so impressed with Super Hexagon that I use it as one way to test nootropics. Check it out:

First Person Shooters

The main focus of studies looking at the benefits of computer games is normally first person shooters. First person shooters are the games that best improve visual acuity as they require you to be constantly scanning the virtual horizon for enemies. They also encourage strategy and decision making, as you need to react quickly and decide which enemy to deal with first.

‘War simulators’ like Call of Duty and Counterstrike (used in pro-gaming competitions) are popular for training these types of skills. Halo is also great for competitive multiplayer. And while there’s no multiplayer for this one, I’m also a fan of Vanquish, which has been described as a first person bullet hell shooter.


Third Person Platformers and Brawlers

I’d argue that for the ‘decision making’ aspect, you could also benefit from a game like Metal Gear Rising, which will similarly require you to combat multiple opponents at once while deciding which ones to focus on and when to shift focus to someone who is telegraphing an attack.


3rd person games with platform elements are also particularly good for spatial awareness and for learning routes and memorizing sequences. Games that involve speed-running are particularly useful for the memorization aspect and also challenge the reflexes. My favourites in this category are Sonic Generations, Super Meat Boy and recent favorite DeadCore.



It’s very possible that games with a strong puzzle element could help to improve lateral thinking and to combat limitations on problem solving such as those imposed by ‘functional fixedness‘. Some puzzles also require you to juggle multiple factors in your brain at once – something like Braid for instance often requires you to perform a long sequence of events to put in motion a logical sequence of events. You can almost feel your brain struggling in these instances. The best examples of these, like the aforementioned Braid, start with a simple premise that they then build upon. Through trial and error, you should then eventually come to that ‘aha’ moment where everything clicks into place.

Another great example is Fez, as is Portal 2. And I actually designed my own game like this called Debugger: Brain Untraining which you can download for Android here. I found the process of designing the puzzles too to be a unique challenge of its own.

Debugger: Brain Untraining

A game like Tetris meanwhile could certainly improve quick decision making as well as improving visualization and pattern recognition. Essentially you are rotating shapes in your mind’s eye against a time limit. You could even say some games like this enhance time management skills. Here is a great Reddit discussion on puzzle design in computer games that provides some fascinating links as well.

Virtual Reality

I’ve spoken before about the role I think virtual reality might one day have in brain training. By immersing ourselves more in our virtual worlds, we could much more easily simulate various scenarios for training purposes. Using motion controls for instance, blocking punches would train the reflex for martial artists just as effectively as real sparring. Likewise, the benefits of a shooter when plunged into a 360 degree virtual reality would likely be far more pronounced. You could even alter your perception of reality through virtual reality to force all kinds of interesting adaptations. VR has the potential to much more effectively ‘fool’ the brain and thereby to provide virtual training. This is why it is already being used to treat phobias via simulated exposure therapy (3).

Of course the VR scene is very young right now but A Wreckless Disregard for Gravity has Oculus support and requires quick reactions and great spatial awareness. It’s essentially virtual base jumping through a futuristic city and it’s as awesome as that sounds.


In conclusion, any computer game will at the very least force you to learn new controls, which results in new cortical mapping and aids with brain plasticity. But of course some games are going to be better at training particular types of cognitive skills than others. Hopefully you’ve found a few interesting games to play here that will test your mettle and just maybe sharpen your reflexes in the process.


About Adam Sinicki

Adam Sinicki, AKA The Bioneer, is a writer, personal trainer, author, entrepreneur, and web developer. I've been writing about health, psychology, and fitness for the past 10+ years and have a fascination with the limits of human performance. When I'm not running my online businesses or training, I love sandwiches, computer games, comics, and hanging out with my family.


  1. Fatjong says:

    Nooo, i remember using the nintendo ds brain training app and believing in it 🙁
    Though very cool concept you have here the ” simulation of the high stress enviroment”. It really is something we miss in our everyday lave at the moment. And that games fill that empties and even train our brain is something we not all are aware of. But I still don’t play games since i am very addicted to them 😛

  2. Alexander Pickworth says:

    Hey Adam,

    Have you heard of GhostRunner? Its a Cybperunk First Person Ninja Fighting game that is so fast and so taxing, its literally the hardest regular computer game I’ve played, not counting all the brain training apps.

    If youve not played or heard of it, Here’s some footage. I highly recommend it for reasons discussed here and its fun as hell:

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