We’ve all heard the horror stories, from mothers, grandmothers, girlfriends, boyfriends, teachers, papers and what-have-you. Video games damage our brains, turn us violent, desensitize us to violence, cause school shootings, and make us go blind – or was that something else?
The point is, the horror stories are plentiful and the actual evidence somewhat sketchy. With arguments like ‘I read somewhere’ or ‘I heard that’, it’s both hard to disprove and hard to agree with them. So, we did some research ourselves to find out just what video games really do to our brains.
First off: Don’t be afraid, the horror tales are mostly completely made up. While there are studies that have shown a connection between, for example, teenage gaming and teenage violence or bullying, they are often not scientifically accurate and ignore important factors like the pre-disposition that some teenagers have to bullying and violence, game or no game.
Truth be told, video games do affect your brain, sometimes in significant ways, and it can be permanent. Does that mean you should stop playing and set fire to your PlayStation? No of course not. (If you must, sacrifice the Xbox One instead!)
So what happens?
Visual Abilities and Visual Processing
If you play action games like first person shooters or RPGs, we have good news. In a study done in Geneva, Professor Daphne Bavelier has found a connection between action focussed games and the ability to visually keep track of multiple moving elements at once. The difference was markedly – the games taught the gamers to switch between moving items quickly and frequently, thus training their brains to operate better under visual stress. The brain learns to process visual information more efficiently than non-gamers (or social gamers. We see you playing Farmville over there!).
Brain Development and Growth
This one is a particularly popular fairy tale – wasting time with video games makes your brain grow or develop more slowly which will affect you later in life. Well, we have good news in this regard too. At the Max-Planck Institute in Berlin, Professor Simone Kuhn has found that when comparing test subjects that spent two months playing with a Nintendo DS to those that didn’t play video games at all, some sections of the gamers brains had developed.
The prefrontal cortex, right hippocampus and cerebellum all showed increased function. All three are tied to navigation and fine motor skills. The game they played was Super Mario DS 64 by the way – in case you want to replicate this. According to Professor Kuhn the combination of 2D and 3D elements stimulates brain growth – never has exercising been more fun.
Mental Decline with Age
Who hasn’t seen or even tried brain training games? They tend to sit at the bottom of the shelves or near the accessories section, and while they are occasionally bought, they are more often part of bundle deals and forgotten about after a few days of exercising. There’s actually been plenty of studies done on how video games affect the aging process of the brain.
Professor Adam Gazzaley designed a video game specifically aimed at older players. After 12 hours of playing, older players showed such a strong improvement in his subjects, they were able to defeat twenty year olds at the game that were playing it for the first time.
That’s not saying much, we admit, however he also measured a significant increase in their memory and attention span. The BBC repeated this experiment with a different game and tested the improvement of attention span and working memory in older people – they improved by 30%. So, not only do video games not slow your brain development, they may significantly slow down its decay instead.
Motor Skills and Reflexes
If you are familiar with FPS games, you probably know that they aren’t easy in so far that you have to have very fine motor control and (sometimes literally) killer reflexes to be able to complete the objectives. It should therefore come as no surprise that not only do video games improve your reflexes, but also your hand-eye coordination and general motor skills.
A Dr. Cate Hoedemaker has created a video game named Underground. It uses a very special kind of controller and serves one purpose – it helps train keyhole surgeons to be better at their craft. Players use the controllers in the same way they may use tools in surgery, and test subjects that played the game have shown a significant increase in their surgical skills. In other words, doctors can now game themselves to being better at their profession.
There you have it: Yes, video games do affect your brain, and yes the difference is significant – but no conclusive evidence could be found that links any increase in violence to them. Instead, we are left with positive effects that range from helping older people with increasing their cognitive functions to increasing the development of certain parts of the brain – something that is especially beneficial for teenagers and young adults.
While there are definitely potential drawbacks to video games like lack of exercise or the possibility of addiction, as far as your brain is concerned, playing video games is not unlike giving your grey matter a good work-out to get ready for the next big task.