Some of the most important tasks the human brain performs are known as the executive functions. According to the National Center for Learning Disabilities, executive function is “a set of mental processes that helps connect past experience with present action. People use it to perform activities such as planning, organizing, strategizing, paying attention to and remembering details, and managing time and space.” As such, the executive functions are crucial to the learning process over the life cycle.
Like many phenomenon in mental health, executive functions were focused on initially in regards to populations that had some deficits in them. With the advent and prevalence of the diagnosis of ADHD, as well as the study of learning and learning disabilities, educators and therapists began to become familiar with a concept that had previously been of most interest to neuroscientists. We still tend to think of executive functioning from a pathology-based approach, only paying attention to how they work when they don’t work.
The truth is everyone has executive functions, which are a combination of nature and nurture, and can develop well into adulthood. They can also deteriorate for a variety of reasons, from traumatic brain injury to Alzheimer’s disease. And there is a body of research which suggests that mental and physical exercise can help maintain, if not improve our executive functions as we age. Not surprisingly, as the Baby Boomers age, interest and research grows in this area. At both ends of the life cycle, our focus on the executive functions are widening beyond pathology to the optimal environments for human learning. How might we get better at planning, attending, strategizing, and managing time and space?
My suggestion: Start playing more tower defense games.
Tower defense is a particular genre of video games, one which in general focuses on on preventing the progress of an enemy army across a map. This is done by the use of towers which have varying abilities, costs to build, and points earned from downing enemies. You don’t necessarily need to have towers in the game: Plants Vs. Zombies for example is an example of a tower defense game where the plants are the equivalent of towers, with special abilities used to defend against the march of those pesky undead across the lawn.
More recently I have been fascinated with one of the latest iterations of tower defense games on the iPad, Kingdom Rush. You start out with a variety of maps and coins for building. You can use one of 4 basic tower types. There are barracks which have soldiers who can fight and slow down the invaders. There are artillery towers which drop bobs for an area wide (AOE) damage. There are marksman towers which target individuals and fire arrows or guns. Finally, there are magician towers with wizards firing spells of various types.
Each invading monster has different strengths and vulnerabilities, which are discovered by trying out different towers and noting their effects. As the invading army is always moving forward in waves, the time element requires you to plan which towers to build first, where to place them, and what upgrades to focus on. To do this requires a tremendous amount of strategy, organization and time management. You also need to make decisions, including how long to delay gratification. The more powerful towers require you to save up many more coins to buy them. Upgrades that you can select from a talent tree add another layer of choice and complexity.
In short, to succeed in Kingdom Rush you need to have good executive functions. It isn’t enough to have good hand/eye coordination or reaction time. You need to be able to learn from your past experiences, and often switch strategies midway through the game. You need to recall which towers are best for different situations and monsters. There is a map to be managed in space and a marching army and builders to manage in time. You need to recognize both immediate feedback and notice trends. And there are multiple towers and units to keep track of.
The more I play Kingdom Rush, the more struck I am by how many if not all of my executive functions are required to succeed. I can see where using this game could be both a useful assessment tool and intervention for deficits in EF. It also has reminded me how necessary executive functions are in terms of managing money as well. The ability to recall prices, to budget and pace spending, and set up investments that accrue value over time–all these economic experiences are embodied in the game.
Speaking of economy, you can try this game for free if you have a computer in your office or classroom here. And you can buy it for a whopping $2.99 for your iPad. Check it out, and see if you agree that it might be a fun, feedback rich way to challenge your executive functions.