The Effects of Video Games on the Brain
By Lila Sahija
Video games are everywhere — on computers, tablets and phones. They are so widespread, a careful parent may feel like keeping kids away from them is a hopeless battle. But new research suggests you may not want to: A review of studies looking at the effects of video games on our brains and behavior suggests that playing video games can change the brain regions responsible for attention and visuospatial skills, making them more efficient.
Marc Palaus, first author on the review, and his colleagues collected the results of 116 scientific studies, 22 of which looked at structural changes in the brain and 100 of which looked at changes in brain functionality and/or behavior.
The studies show that playing video games can change how our brains perform, and even their structure. For example, playing video games affects our attention, and some studies found that gamers show improvements in sustained attention or selective attention. The brain regions involved in attention are also more efficient in gamers, who expend less mental energy when staying focused on on demanding tasks.
There is also evidence that video games can increase the size and efficiency of brain regions related to visuospatial skills. For example, the right hippocampus was enlarged in both long-term gamers and volunteers who had taken a video game training program.
There is a downside — or, at least, a side to be aware of: The review found video games can also be addictive (known officially as “Internet gaming disorder”). Researchers have found functional and structural changes in the neural reward system in gaming addicts, in part by exposing them to gaming cues that cause cravings and monitoring their neural responses. These neural changes are basically the same as those seen in other addictive disorders.
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So, what do all effects of video games on the brain mean? They mean there’s more of a gray area to playing video games than most people think — and more research is needed to parse it.
“Games have sometimes been praised or demonized, often without real data backing up those claims. Moreover, gaming is a popular activity, so everyone seems to have strong opinions on the topic,” Palaus said. “We focused on how the brain reacts to video game exposure, but these effects do not always translate to real-life changes. It’s likely that video games have both positive (on attention, visual and motor skills) and negative aspects (risk of addiction), and it is essential we embrace this complexity.”
This review was published in Frontiers in Human Neuroscience.