How do video games affect the brain?

Over the past few weeks, a number of stories have come out based on scientific research and opinion related to video games and how they affect the brain. The most popularised opinion at the moment has come from leading psychologist Phillip Zimbardo who, as part of his latest book, Man (Dis)Connected, as warned of video games’ damaging influence on young men alongside pornography.

As part of his research, Zimbardo analysed 20,000 young men, their lives and how they interacted with video games and pornography. He claims there is a “crisis” amongst young men due to the excessive playing of video games and social isolation that comes with it.

“Now, with freely available pornography, they are combining playing video games, and as a break, watching on average, two hours of pornography a week.”

Phillip Zimbardo

Misleading research

However, there have been recent studies that contradict previous research into the effect video games have on the brain. A paper published today entitled ‘Habitual action video game playing is associated with caudate nucleus-dependent navigational strategies’ by Dr. Gregory West and Dr. Véronique Bohbot claimed there was a link between excessive video game play and an increased risk of Alzheimer’s disease. This link was refuted by Chris Chambers and Pete Etchells of The Guardian in a brief article exposing the unnecessarily hype and history stemmed from a series of fallible conclusions.

Gotta play from both sides

Without making this into a discussion on poorly researched sciences papers and the hysterical mainstream media headlines that come from them, it’s important to know just how video games can affect your brain. An article in Neurology Now looked at both sides of the coin, stating the idea of “gaming addiction” could not be easily defined, with scientists split on its existence. A guide for parents was published and a look at the positive and negative effects of gaming on the brain.

In 2013, a study was conducted with a group of volunteers who played Nintendo classic Super Mario 64 for 30 minutes a day over two months. Researchers at the Max Planck Institute for Human Development and Charité University Medicine St. Hedwig-Krankenhaus performed MRI scans on their brains and compared them with a group of non-gamers. The results found that there was “significant gray matter increase” among the gamers as well as increased brain volume in areas of the brain responsible for memory formation, planning and spatial navigation.

Insert coin to continue

Needless to say, there is a lot more work to be done in the study of gaming and its resultant effects on how we think and live. What doesn’t help are the sweeping generalisations of negative effects that the mainstream media push in their headlines (the very media that persuade people to buy these games). The important message to take from any studies or related articles is while there are benefits to gaming, anything in excess will lead to problems. I remember the time I played Pokémon 6 hours straight and I was left with a splitting headache and a scolding from my mum. I was 9 years old. Never again.

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