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Oct 20th 2021

Screen Savants or Digital Zombies? The Effects of Playing Video Games on the Brain

There’s no denying the juggernaut that is video gaming. Both lauded and lamented by news agencies, governments and researchers alike, the gaming industry is now worth more than $57 billion per year, as VentureBeat notes. According to recent research from NPD, 244 million people in the United States are playing video games for an average of 14 hours per week — and 65% play multiple games across multiple platforms.

But what are the effects of video games on the brain? Are we gaining new skills to become screen savants, capable of applying virtual knowledge in the real world? Or are we destined to become digital zombies, mindlessly staring at screens while traditional social interaction crumbles?

Not surprisingly, the answer lies somewhere in the middle. Here’s a look at the mental machinations and operative impact of video games on the human brain.

From Frogger to Fortnite

While the recent rise of mobile-driven gaming has both widened the appeal and deepened the worry about video game impacts, gaming itself has a substantive history that stretches back more than 80 years. As The Museum of Play notes, Edward U. Condon created one of the first-ever video games for the World’s Fair in 1940. Designed to play Nim — a game that involves players trying to avoid picking up the last matchstick — the computer was able to beat human competitors 90% of the time.

The 1950s saw the creation of chess-playing programs, and 1972 gave rise to Pong. By 1981, Pac Man was chomping his way into people’s hearts, while Super Mario was getting his feet off the ground and Frogger tried to stay the course across a busy road. The rise of home consoles and decrease in desktop costs helped to drive a new generation of games. Thanks to Atari, Coleco, Sega and Nintendo, gaming quickly went mainstream. Fueled by reliable broadband Internet access and the rapid adoption of smart phones, gaming came of age in the second decade of the 21st century. In 2010 came the release of mega-hit Minecraft, and massive multiplayer online role playing games (MMORPGs) saw immense uptake with games such as World of Warcraft, Guild Wars 2 and Final Fantasy XIV. Cross-platform play also increased uptake thanks to hugely popular games such as Fortnite and Call of Duty.

Bottom line? Games have gone from expensive, niche hobbies to something everyone can enjoy, no matter their digital preferences. From in-depth building games like Minecraft to online social interactions in MMORPGs to bite-sized gaming on mobile phones, there’s something for everyone.

Benefits of Playing Video Games

Beyond the fun of leveling up your character, beating the big boss or building something truly epic in Minecraft, are there any mental or physical benefits to video gaming? As it turns out, absolutely.

“Studies show that playing video games can change how our brains perform, and even their structure,” according to recent research published in Science Daily. Some studies found that gamers displayed improvements in both sustained and selective attention and that attention-related processes had a reduced activation threshold, making it possible to focus on more demanding tasks for longer. In addition, the research noted that “there is also evidence that video games can increase the size and efficiency of brain regions related to visuospatial skills” — among both gamers and volunteers, the right hippocampus was enlarged after completing a video-game training program.

As the Dana Foundation notes, there’s also evidence to suggest that playing action games can improve contrast sensitivity in adults, which is the ability to differentiate between multiple shades of gray, in turn potentially boosting their ability to do the same in real-world scenarios such as driving at night. Pro-social games may also help to encourage helpfulness and kindness outside of digital worlds. And professions requiring superb precision — such as laparoscopic surgeons — reported an increase in skills after playing a specially designed training game.

Potential Pitfalls of Sustained Screen Time

It’s an oft-repeated scenario by opponents of digital delivery: people scrolling blank-faced through social media sites or getting so absorbed in video games that they can’t be bothered to go outside, socialize or even eat. The situation isn’t impossible — occasional reports emerge of gamers spending so much time online that they neglect their responsibilities or even end up in the hospital.

But in reality, these stories are outliers. The vast majority of gamers know when to stop or are compelled to put down controllers thanks to outside forces such as school, work or social obligations. But there is a grain of truth to these computational concerns. Some potential pitfalls of sustained screen time include:

  • Eye strain: As the American Optometric Association (AOA) notes, digital eye strain (also called computer vision syndrome) often occurs as a result of prolonged screen use. Symptoms include eye discomfort and vision problems, and “the level of discomfort appears to increase with the amount of digital screen use.” To limit the impact, the AOA recommends the 20-20-20 rule: Every 20 minutes, look at something 20 feet away for at least 20 seconds.
  • Digital desensitization: There are also concerns around desensitization, with some research suggesting lower activity in the brain’s rostral anterior cingulate cortex (rACC) and amygdala after playing violent video games, as the Dana Foundation points out. With interactions between these brain regions often thought to impact resolution of emotional conflicts, decreased functioning could indicate a suppression of emotional response. The caveat? This is correlation, not causation, which indicates a need for caution in interpretation.
  • Online addictions: Video games have also been linked to Internet gaming disorder, which according to the American Psychiatric Association affects between 0.3% and 1% of the population. The symptoms of this disorder are similar to those of other addictive issues and include functional and structural changes in neural reward systems that lead to cravings and potentially obsessive behavior.

The Kids Are (Mostly) Alright

With pandemic pressures pushing kids and parents into a screen time-focused framework for both learning and leisure, there’s understandable concern around the impact of digital content delivery for kids.

The good news? It’s (mostly) alright. As a recent Time article notes, games offered many kids a way to connect with friends when in-person social interactions weren’t possible, and while e-learning tools can never take the place of in-classroom instruction, they provided a way to help bridge the engagement gap.

Also critical in kids gaming? Context. Setting boundaries is essential — such as limited or supervised screen time — as is finding the right fit for gaming. Social, interactive games or those that prioritize creation are preferable over more brute-force focused gaming options.

Time to Level Up

What are the effects of video games on the brain? Recent studies suggest that, in some cases, games can help to improve attention span, foster social connections and increase contrast sensitivity. The caveat? Everything in moderation. No matter how fun the game or how big the mental benefits, it’s worth taking a break to reduce eye strain and engage with other human beings face to face.

Simply put, while games won’t save humanity, they’re not the digital, destructive force described by their opponents. Overall, the balance appears to be positive: General enjoyment paired with moderate cognitive benefits suggest that video games offer both physical and virtual value for players.

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