Your Brain on Video Games: Surveying the Available Evidence

Aug 28, 2017 | Greggory Moore | Moore Lowdown
Your Brain on Video Games: Surveying the Available Evidence

image by: Bely Medved

Video games are big business, so there's plenty of incentive for saying they're good for you. But a comprehensive survey of over 100 studies shows that gaming is a decidedly mixed bag.

From a selective perusal of headlines populating the Internet in recent years, you might get the impression that video games have been a boon to humankind. "Playing Video Games Is Good for Your Brain—Here's How" says IFLS. "Video Game Play Benefits Coordination" announces Psychology Today. "Scientific studies show why everyone should play video games" claims TechU4ia.

But you know what they say about what it usually means when something sounds too good to be true. Fortunately, an international group of researchers has brought such pie-in-the-sky claims back to Earth by sifting through over 100 studies of the effects of gaming on the brain—including those cited in the above-mentioned articles. The picture they paint is far more nuanced than that of any single study, and while the news for gamers is far from all bad, there are definite reasons to be wary of spending too much time in the virtual world.

As technology progresses, so too does the number of video games, the media that support them, and the number of gamers—the combination of which makes gaming's effect on the human mind increasingly worthy of attention. Moreover, part and parcel of this increase has been an expansion of the gamer demographic. "[T]he mean age of video game players (VGPs) (31 years old, as of 2014) has been on the rise in recent decades," notes the Entertainment Software Association. In other words, gaming's effect on the brain is not just kid stuff.

Neither is studying it, although authors of the above-cited articles may have lost sight of subject's complexity. "[T]he concept of VG [i.e., video-gaming] is extremely heterogeneous[,] and within the category we find a myriad of hardly comparable genres," write the authors of "Neural Basis of Video Gaming: A Systematic Review," published at frontiers in Human Neuroscience in May. "The behavioral effects and the neural correlates derived from the use of VGs depend both on the nature of the VG, the exposition to the game (hours of game play, age of onset, etc.) […], and, to a large extent, the individual characteristics of each participant […]. For the time being, this whole body of knowledge is a complex combination of techniques, goals and results."

Despite that jumble of data, the researchers were able to extract several general trends. One of the most prevalent is that indeed VGPs do seem to display enhanced performance in a range of ways attention-requiring tasks. "Non-VGPs, compared to VGPs, showed greater frontoparietal recruitment, a source of selective attention, as task demands increased, showing that habitual gamers have more efficient top-down resource allocation during attentional demanding tasks," the authors write. "[… I]t seems that VG play correlates with an increment of the frontal midline theta rhythm, associated with focused attention. [… A]ction VGs are better at improving selective attention than other slow-paced VGs" such as role-playing, puzzle, or strategy games, "which require high planning skills and other forms of proactive cognitive control."

Not surprising is a general finding that the specifics of brain changes depend on the specifics and general type of video game. "Different VG genres seem to affect which cognitive skills will be trained," the authors write. "Training older adults in a strategy VG seemed to improve verbal memory span […], but not problem solving or working memory, while using a 2D action VG improved everyday problem solving and reasoning. Transfer effects were even more relevant in the case of a brain training/puzzle VG, where working memory improvements were also observed. [… E]ven short VG training paradigms showed improvements in cognitive control related functions, particularly working memory."

But the research also points to very real downsides that can be come from gaming. Video-game addiction is prevalent that Internet Gaming Disorder (IGD) has been proposed for inclusion in the 5th edition of the American Psychological Association's Diagnostic and Statistical Manual for Mental Disorders (DSM-5), which is basically the standard for the classification of mental illnesses and disorders. "VG addiction is understood as an impulse-control disorder with psychological consequences, not unlike other addictive disorders, especially non-substance addictions such as pathological gambling […]," the authors note. "By exposing the participants to gaming cues, it is possible to elicit a craving response and study which regions show stronger correlation in IGD patients compared to controls. […] Overall, these features are characteristic of reward deficiencies that entail dysfunctions in the dopaminergic system, a shared neurobiological abnormality with other addictive disorders. […] The role of the reward system is always present when we talk about VGs, due to the way they are designed."

Curiously, it seems the upside of gaming have been studied far more than the downside. "While much has been written about the possible benefits of VG playing, finding articles highlighting the negative outcomes in non-addicted or expert VGPs is much less common," the authors point out. "To our knowledge, only four studies pointed out neural correlates which predicted hindered performance in a range of cognitive domains."

Whether that disparity of research is due to gaming's having more upside than downside—or, instead, to the fact that there is more profit motive in pointing up gaming's benefits rather than its detriments (consider, for example, the beverage industry's funding of research finding that sodas, etc., are not particularly unhealthy)—is unclear at present. But based on the available literature, it appears that, while gaming can offer certain cognitive benefits, this is definitely a case where it's possible to get too much of a good thing.

About the Author:

Except for a four-month sojourn in Comoros (a small island nation near the northwest of Madagascar), Greggory Moore has lived his entire life in Southern California.  Currently he resides in Long Beach, CA, where he engages in a variety of activities, including playing in the band MOVE, performing as a member of RIOTstage, and, of course, writing.

His work has appeared in the Los Angeles Times, OC Weekly, Daily Kos, the Long Beach Post, Random Lengths News, The District Weekly,, and a variety of academic and literary journals.  HIs first novel, The Use of Regret, was published in 2011, and he is currently at work on his follow-up.  For more information:

image by: Bely Medved

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