Inside the Brains of Video Game Players


Aug 14, 2017


It’s all about how the game makes players navigate.

Public discourse is starting to move beyond the claim that violent video games cause violence in real life, thanks in large part to a statement the American Psychological Association’s Division 46 made earlier this year explaining just how little scientific evidence there is of the connection.

We seem to have moved on to asking: Are the effects of video games on the brain damaging or supportive? And the answer, confusingly, is: both. There is evidence to suggest that video games can build players’ decision-making skills and expand their visual attention skills. And there is evidence that regularly playing action video games reduces the grey matter in a person’s brain, particularly in the hippocampus region that is involved in spatial learning, navigation and memory. The hippocampus is critical to healthy cognition. The more depleted the hippocampus becomes, the more a person is at risk of developing brain illnesses and diseases ranging from depression to schizophrenia, PTSD and Alzheimer’s disease.

New research is helping us learn how to mitigate the latter, negative effects. Researchers from the University of Montreal and McGill University in Canada, through several studies, have found that the way players navigate while playing affects their degree of grey matter loss. Players who do not use spatial memory strategies such as landmarks to navigate through a first-person shooting game, but rather spontaneously rely on response strategies such as counting and patterning to find their way around the game are even more affected.

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(Interestingly, a reduction in gray matter is also one of the main effects on babies and small children who spend too much time in front of a screen, playing games or otherwise, though there’s no evidence of any mitigating factor.)

The researchers first investigated differences in the hippocampal grey matter of 33 people who either habitually play action video games or never do so. Participants were questioned about the strategies they employ to navigate. Spatial learners solve a virtual reality task set in a maze by learning the relationship between the target objects and specific landmarks in the maze. Response learners use counting, patterning and memorizing a series of actions to remember specific sequences along the way. It was found that habitual action video game players had significantly less grey matter in their hippocampus and used response strategies at a higher rate.

  The takeaway from this new research? Limit kids’ exposure to video games before their preteen years, and then, help them choose games that exercise their navigational skills.

In two further studies, new groups of 43 and 21 participants received 90 hours of training on either an action video game (such as Call of Duty or Battlefield), a 3D-platform game (such as Super Mario 64), or an action-role playing game (such as Dead Island). All participants underwent magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) brain scans and their brain tissue density was measured.

The studies found that first-person shooting games reduce grey matter within the hippocampus in participants who don’t use navigational skills but rather use counting and pattern recognition to move about the game’s virtual space. After receiving training in navigation, there was an increase in the grey matter of those participants who had previously used the latter. Growth was seen in either the hippocampus or the functionally connected entorhinal cortex area of the brain in the control group that trained on 3D-platform games.

“These results show that video games can be beneficial or detrimental to the hippocampal system depending on the navigation strategy that a person employs and the genre of the game,” says Greg West, associate professor at the University of Montreal, who led the research.

He suggests that in-game GPS and way-finding routes overlaid on the display of many games keep players from having to use the navigational skills that can build their brains. He recommends video game developers to design games without GPS or way-finding routes so as to encourage spatial learning.

The results also suggest caution when using video games to improve cognitive skills such as visual short term memory and visual attention among children and adults.

“While cognitive training treatments that rely on action video games may promote better visual attention skills, the current results show that they may be associated with a reduction in hippocampal grey matter,” West explains.

(On top of that, other research suggests that cognitive training games are kind of a scam ….)

The takeaway from this new research? Limit kids’ exposure to video games before their preteen years, and then, help them choose games that require them to exercise their navigational skills, rather than showing them where they are on a map.


Written By Liesl Goecker

Liesl Goecker is The Swaddle’s managing editor.


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