How do video games affect our brains?13 minute read

Jim Cullinane looks into the neuroscience behind video games and their impacts on our brains.

The reception for video gaming is incredibly mixed. It has a huge following, with gamers spending 3 billion hours per week in front of their screens. However it also has a negative reception with the blame of violent incidents that have occurred over time. The large following of gamers would suggest it has a positive effect on users. However the media would suggest the opposite. Whatever the feelings towards video games there have been many studies in the scientific community all asking ‘how do video games affect our brains?’. Today we will analyse some of these studies to see the real neurological impact of this cultural phenomenon.

The gaming markets audience

Firstly let’s look at the size of the video game industry’s audience. The gaming industry has evolved over the years from a focused market to mainstream. Since the 1970’s home consoles have been available to home consumers. As of 2007 the industry took a whopping $9.5 billion in the US alone. The US gaming industry was worth $18.4 billion in 2017. Revenue is expected to hit $230 billion in the US by 2022.

The United Kingdom is the third largest country in terms of developer success. Built primarily on the Britsoft bedroom coders of the ZX Spectrum and Amiga days it has seen huge success in the industry.

As of 2019 there are now in excess of 2.5 billion gamers worldwide, across all platforms. In total combination they will spend approximately $152.1 billion on games in 2019. This represents a total increase of +9.6% year-on-year.

Doom is often blamed in the media for the Columbine High School massacre, 1999 (image credit: ID Software)

Call of Duty: Infinite WarfareBattlefield 1, and Grand Theft Auto V were the top three best-selling video games of 2016 alone. The yearly release of Call of Duty games are huge. Call of Duty: Modern Warfare, released in 2019, hit $600 million of sales in just three days. Games that fall into the first-person shooter genre account for 27.5 percent of annual sales. Unfortunately first-person shooter games are often accused of causing aggression, violence and addiction.

Regardless of the media negativity, scientists have been unable to find causal links between acts of violence and video games. But what are the actual affects of this industry on our brains?

The neurological causality of gaming

The experience of autonomy and the experience of competing with others builds the motivation to play video games. It gives to the user a feeling of freedom from external control and influence as well as triggering the competitive side of the gamer. Gaming genres are aimed towards specific demographics with some games built on social aspects and some on physical activities. It has been found that these increase social skills and physical dexterity respectively. But more interestingly is information from the study titled A meta-analysis of the cognitive and motivational effects of serious games. It found that playing video games can change cognition and the brain.

The brain (image credit: unknown)

Not only does the brain change how it operates, but it also undergoes physical changes too.

In 2017 scientists collected and summarised results from a total of 116 scientific studies. This data was used to determine how video games can influence our brains and also on our behaviours. Frontiers in Human Neuroscience published what they found. 22 of the reviewed studies explored the changes in structures of the brain. 100 of the studies analysed the changes in the brains overall functionality as well as its behaviour.

A growing brain

Video game use is publicly understood to affect attention – but this would appear to be a negative perception of the activity, mostly by parents and media. The 116 studies found that sustained attention and selective attention in the players were actually improved. Not only this but gamers, compared to non-gamers, showed to have more efficient frontal lobes. Predominantly this area of the brain has an active role in attention span. The studies highlighted how gamers’ frontal lobes needed less activation to stay focused on demanding tasks.

The joys of gaming (photo credit: Jim Cullinane)

Evidence also shows how playing video games actually increases the size, as well as the competence, of the parieto-occipital region. Visuospatial skills are controlled by this region of the brain. Visuospatial skills are defined as relating to or denoting the visual perception of spatial relationships of objects. As well as these areas veteran gamers showed an enlargement in the right hippocampus. The main function of the hippocampi is to unite semantic memory. The left and right hippocampi encrypt verbal and visual-spatial memories, respectively. The hippocampus and the amygdala play a indispensable role in processing emotion. Both left and right side are regulated by the prefrontal cortex.

Gaming addiction and Internet Gaming Disorder

Researchers have also discovered that video gaming can be addictive. Internet gaming disorder is the phenomenon that is defined as the problematic and compulsive use of video games. Not only is it compulsive, but it results in an impairment for a gamer to function in various life domains. There has been much research in this area, but generally it is diagnosed when a player sacrifices responsibility or other interests. The sacrifice has to be at the cost of video game immersion and the player must have disregard for the consequences.

Internet gaming disorder has no agreed definition (image credit: Getty Images)

The anterior cingulate cortex and the dorsolateral prefrontal cortex are the main neural circuits related to regulation of motivation. They regulate the attention and cognitive control respectively. Players addicted to gaming show changes in the function and structure of these areas. Combined it is known as a neural reward system.

The World Health Organisation included Internet Gaming disorder in its 11th revision of International Statistical Classification of Diseases. However it also stated that there is insufficient evidence for the inclusion into the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders in 2013. There has been much controversy around the subject, with no agreed definitions. This has led to difficulties in the development of any evidence of the disease.

Addictions can be hard to break (image credit Addictions.com)

Addiction vs excessive enthusiasm

Parents for one will be concerned about this affecting their child’s mental health. Internet gaming disorder is more often than not associated with an increase in anxiety, social phobia and depression. However research has shown that adults and younger adults are actually more affected than adolescents.

The simple conclusion to video game addiction is that anyone, from any background, can become addicted to anything. When people think about addiction the word drugs usually come to mind. However gambling has severe social and health costs associated with it too. Pathological gamblers also get the same sense of competitiveness and challenge than that of a gamer, and it will often act as a similar vessel for addictive qualities.

Excessive behaviour is what usually transforms into addiction. People can have excessive enthusiasm over any activity, from shopping to exercising. video games, sports, reading, listening to music and watching films can all lead to excessive enthusiasm. This can often be interpreted as an addiction, however the difference is obvious. Excessive enthusiasm adds concepts and fulfilment to life, whereas addiction simply takes away.

Memory boosting capabilities

Playing three-dimenstional games can boost memory formation according to neurobiologists from the University of California. They have also found evidence to suggest that reaction times and hand-eye coordination are significantly improved. Within their study they used non-gamers to play two-dimensional games and three-dimensional games.

Two-dimensional games are often of the platforming genre, such as Super Mario Bros., or puzzlers like Angry Birds. Three-dimensional games take on various forms, from Super Mario 3D World to isometric games such as Diablo or Pillars of Eternity.

Super Mario 3D World could improve memory performance by 12% (image credit: Nintendo)

The chosen subjects were asked to play for 30 minutes per day over a two week period. Pre and post the two-week period, the students took part in memory tests that engaged the brain’s hippocampus. The results showed that the students playing the three-dimensional games improved their scores on the memory test. On the other side of the test it was found that the players who partook in two-dimensional games did not better their scores.

The players who used three-dimensional games had memory performance increases by approximately 12 percent. This is the same amount of average decrease witnessed between the ages of 45 and 70.

Interestingly the lead researcher stated it is down to the three-dimensional element of the games, “they’ve got a lot more spatial information in there to explore”. This research seems to tie back to the forementioned increase in size and competence of the parieto-occipital region. Linking us back to the visuospatial skill elements of the player.

The jury is out on the effects of Dr Kawashima’ Brain Training (image credit: Nintendo)

What about non-transferable skills?

Of course there are contradictory arguments to this. Florida State University researchers state that brain training games, such as Dr Kawashima’s Brain Training franchise, do not boost memory abilities. Stating that these games only train the brain to remember very specific, non-transferable skills. “The thing that seniors, in particular, should be concerned about is, if I can get very good at crossword puzzles, is that going to help me remember where my keys are? And the answer is probably no,” Wally Boot, associate professor of psychology, said.

However, looking at the concrete evidence it is safe to assume that video games can have a fantastic and positive affect on the brain. Regions of the brain are enlarged and become somewhat superior to that of a non-gamer. Whether it is in concentration, hand-eye coordination or memory boost the impact on video game immersion is real.

Video game and violence correlations

The media constantly targets the video game industry regarding on-screen violence and the transfer of that to an individuals psyche. Violent video games are often linked to violent events, with the Columbine shootings being one of the more prominent in recent years.

When Doom was released in 1993 there was previously no such thing as age-ratings on games. Parents did not know about graphical violence and how this was portrayed on a video game. People still remembered Centipede and Space Invaders as pinnacle moments in gaming history. After the Columbine shootings it was found that Klebold and Harris in fact played Doom, modifying the game and uploading a modification called Tier into the school’s network.

Columbine – the aftermath

Two years after the shootings the victims families sued 11 of the video game companies they saw as ones that produced violent software. They stated that a mixture of addiction to these violent games, as well as the boys personalities, was what caused the shootings. One of those 11 companies was ID Software, the creators of Doom. The case was dismissed on the basis that games are not subject to product liability laws.

This started a wave of research from the academic community to find the correlations between violent video games such as Doom, Mortal Kombat and Wolfenstein, and aggressive personalities. However in recent years the claims from this research has all been disproved. None of the research took into account long term effects, nor the actual definition of aggression.

In regards to violence, it would seem that violent people need no catalyst. Whether they become enraged around video games, movies, books or pictures there is no proven correlation between these media types and personal aggression.

Real-world adaptions

So if games improve areas of the brain it is safe to assume that they should no longer be limited to the living room or man cave. In fact there are several areas of skills professions that are using, or studying the use of video games for training purposes.

Video games are able to mimic any environment, situation or event with high levels of detail and attention. People are able to act-out anything that they desire in a video game environment, and even more so in the new waves of Virtual Reality video game platforms. These are multi-billion dollar industries with technology that can be put to use in various ways.

Surgical and military solutions

Dr James Rosser Jr and his colleagues carried out a study of their own at Keck School of Medicine at University of Southern California. The study actually revealed that the surgical residents and students playing specific video games did better on simulators that provided training for laparoscopic surgery. This was down to the better hand-eye coordination training through the games – mirroring the research undertaken by the University of California.

Doctors utilising VR capabilities (photo credit Upload VR)

In addition to simulators, doctors are already using virtual reality for colonoscopies, training, and other applications. There are even veterinarians using this technology already. Medical professionals at Stanford’s Lucile Packard Children’s Hospital have been using True 3D to plan heart surgeries. This allows them to understand a patient’s anatomy before any surgical process occurs.

The United States military is also one to adopt the video game market into their training strategies. Utilising games such as Ghost Recon, ARMA 2 and Call of Duty: Modern Warfare they are able to promote a soldier’s mindset even when they are not on duty. This isn’t to say that these simulations are lifelike, or accurate, but they serve to keep the soldier’s minds focused and used to combat experiences. Before video games the United States military used to promote the use of board games of the same subject.

From flight simulators, to space simulators, there are various platforms where games are used to enhance the skills of the users.

A neuro-logical conclusion

For me the evidence is heavily in favour of a positive neurological and physical affect on the brain. The massive improvements in cognitive abilities, hand-eye coordination, memory as well as spatial awareness is definitely something to focus on when contemplating video games. Obviously there are negative connotations with video games, but addiction has to be managed by the individual, and video-game-fed aggression is media-hyped sensationalism that literally has no bearing.