Your Brain on Video Games

Here’s what the research says

Your Brain on Video Games
Photo by Ben Sweet / Unsplash

Human beings have been playing games for a long, long time. Literal millennia. Legend says that chess was invented around 200 B.C., while Senet — a Predynastic Egyptian game — dates as far back as 3100 B.C.Chess, checkers, card games, jigsaw puzzles, puzzle boxes and more have all been used to fill our time, sharpen our minds, combat boredom, challenge ourselves, and have fun. Video games can be seen as the latest iteration in the long and rich history of lazy Sunday afternoons. While many people think Pong was the first video game developed in history, it was actually Tennis for Two. This was a simple tennis game developed by Physicist William Higinbotham in an attempt to liven up the Brookhaven National Laboratory’s open house (where he was employed.) The idea was to get individuals interested in science, showing the relevance scientific discovery had on society by creating a piece that could be interacted with. Tennis For Two was developed in 1958, and while monumental in its own right, video games wouldn’t be popularized until 1970s aforementioned Pong. Consequently, we’ve only had roughly six decades to study the effects of video games on our cognitive processes.

Tennis for Two. Source: SUPERJUMP.

Sitting down and having a gaming session is no longer a rarity, either. According to the Entertainment Software Association, 65% of American adults play video games, with 60% playing games at least once a day. That amount of prevalence is pretty staggering, and it shows that any affects video games may have on our brains will be influencing over half of the American population. With the gaming industry being as huge as it is, it’s nearly impossible to sidestep around the ascendancy games have over our popular culture. Experiencing a video game has more complex consequences than can be understood on surface level. As a result, aspects of these effects are generally perceived to be both positive and negative.

The most interesting thing about the effects of games on our brains is that they don’t only change how our brains function, but they change how our brains are structured. For example, the hippocampus — part of the brain that plays important roles in the consolidation of information from short-term memory to long-term memory — tends to be larger in long-term gamers, thus working more efficiently. Parts of the brain that help with visuospatial skills — a person’s ability to identify visual and spatial relationships among objects — are also larger, resulting in better spacial awareness and hand-eye coordination. Efficiency in parts of the brain that help with attention, including sustained attention and selective attention, shows additional improvement over those who don’t game. These improvements aren’t narrowed down to just operating more efficiently, however, as they also cause the brain to require less activation to sustain these tasks. Essentially, being an avid gamer means your brain may require less effort to activate and sustain attention on a certain task, even a difficult one.

Near the island of Aragusuku there is a lone reef the locals call the palace of the dragon king.
Photo by Tomoe Steineck / Unsplash

Gaming potentially affects your memory as well. A study done by neurobiologists at the University of California, Irvine, found that students who played a 3D game (Super Mario 3D World) had a significant improvement in their memory over those who played a 2D game (Angry Birds.) It wasn’t a slight improvement, either. It increased by 12%, which is roughly the same amount of memory retention we lose between the ages of 45 and 70. The neurobiologists believe that this is because 3D games are typically more complex than 2D games, having significantly more spatial data to comprehend and retain, as well as more information in general. Some have likened these studies with “brain training,” which is the practice of enacting programs that help with the struggles with thinking, learning, reading, memory, and attention. Brain training has been shown to help with cognitive difficulties, some as severe as Alzheimer’s and dementia, others as mundane as short-term memory retention. These tests have been described as “promising,” however it is imperative to note that these studies were uncontrolled and show no more than a general correlation, and should not be taken as fact until more extensive studying can be done.

What is not correlated conjecture, however, is video game addiction. Video game addiction is the compulsive or uncontrolled use of video games, in a way that causes problems in other areas of the person’s life. As with addiction to any substance or activity, video games trigger the reward center of the brain, called the “ventral striatum.” The ventral striatum is the same center that releases “feel good” chemicals when we do something that helps us survive or reproduce — such as eating or mating. However, this portion of the brain can be activated by stimulants disconnected from survival, such as alcohol, gambling, or drugs. People who are considered “frequent gamers” (playing more than nine hours a week,) have much larger ventral striatumthan those who are “infrequent” or “casual” gamers. This larger ventral striatum means that it’s possible that frequent gamers produce more dopamine than casual ones after playing games, which causes the player to chase after that feeling more regularly. During a study in which volunteers played a gambling game, researchers found that frequent gamers made decisions faster than casual gamers, and their brain was more active as they were playing, even when losing. They call this phenomenon “loss chasing,” and it is the same phenomenon that effects gambling addicts, causing addiction.

While this sounds intimidating, many of these studies are considered non-conclusive. The true long term effects of gaming on our brains has yet to be determined, as there simply isn’t enough data available to make incontrovertible statements about what video games do to our thought processes. Regardless, the fact that many researchers believe the benefits of games are “promising” is something to look forward to, but a lesson can be learned in the negative aspects of gaming addictions. Moderation is always key when it comes to these types of stimuli, and while there is nothing wrong with occasionally having an hours-long raid with your friends or an all-nighter with a new game, make sure to balance your time with other activities. Be that as it may, every time you decide to spend your hours plugged into your favorite game worlds, your brain is getting a workout, and only time will tell what results will be gleaned from these particular training regiments.

Hello everyone! Thank you so much for reading! There’s so much information available on what gaming does to your mind, I highly recommend digging deeper if you’re interested! Also, if you feel as though your gaming has become problematic in your life, please call SAMHSA’s National Helpline at 1–800–662-HELP (4357). There’s nothing wrong with asking for help!

Jared McCarty


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