The human brain is innately wired to crave instant gratification, fast pace, and unpredictability. Perhaps, that’s why video games, which satisfy all three of these criteria, can be incredibly addictive. Playing video games floods the pleasure center of the brain with dopamine aka ‘The Feel-Good Hormone”. It gives the brain a temporary, fleeting rush of excitement. This can leave the brain with a shortage of dopamine supply in the long term, which might cause bad withdrawal symptoms, behavioral problems, and even aggression in gamers. It is not uncommon to hear both positive and negative health claims related to VGs in the mass media. For instance, gaming has been shown to help the brain in a number of ways, such as enhanced visual perception, improved ability to switch between tasks, better information processing, attention, cognitive control, visuospatial skills, cognitive workload, and reward processing. The popular press is replete with stories about the effects of video and computer games on the brain.
Sensationalist headlines claiming that video games ‘damage the brain’ or ‘boost brain power’ do not do justice to the complexities and limitations of the studies involved, and create a confusing overall picture about the effects of gaming on the brain.
So, let us explore the relationship between the use of video games and their neural correlates, taking into account the whole variety of cognitive factors that they encompass.
Does playing video or computer games have beneficial effects on the brain and behavior? If so, does the evidence point to general improvements in cognitive function? The extent to which playing video and online games affect the brain and behavior is uncertain. It is likely that the specific beneficial or harmful effects are determined by the characteristics of both the individual and of the game. There are millions of individual games, hundreds of distinct genres, and subgenres, and they can be played on computers, consoles, hand-held devices, and cell phones. Simply put, if one wants to know what the effects of video games are, the devil is in the details. Studies that have examined perception and spatial cognition have focused on one specific genre of games — the so-called ‘action’ video games. Indeed, playing this type of game results in a wide range of behavioral benefits, including enhancements in low-level vision, visual attention, speed of processing, and statistical inference, among others. Besides including violent content, action games include high speed, high perceptual and motor load, unpredictability, and an emphasis on peripheral processing. In several training studies, these games have been found to influence various aspects of perceptual processing, including multiple objects tracking spatial resolution, central and peripheral attention skills. In other words, when you constantly need to scan the screen to detect little differences (because they may signal an enemy) and then orient attention to and target that area, you become better at those perceptual and attentional skills.
Although experienced video gamers were better at spatial navigation in computer-mediated tasks than non-experienced players, they were not better at the same type of navigation in a real-world environment.
So, what is learned may not be a broad, general improvement in skill.
Furthermore, properly controlled training studies have repeatedly demonstrated a causal link between playing VGs and enhanced abilities. Several lines of research demonstrate that video games can have beneficial effects, like improved visuospatial capacity, visual acuity, task switching, decision making, and object tracking in healthy individuals. The potential benefits that can be achieved through video-game play are, of course, a function of the specific task requirements, and of the cognitive and social demands and values represented by the games in play. Games that require progressively more accurate and more challenging judgments and actions at higher speeds, that require focused attention and the suppression of progressively stronger distracting lures, that increase working memory spans, that provide pro-social training contexts and that offer increasingly harder cognitive challenges can be expected to drive positive neurological changes in the brain systems that support these behaviors. There is growing direct evidence that intensive use of video games results in significant generalized improvements in cognitive function. Video games are controlled training regimens delivered in highly motivating behavioral contexts. The documented gains in processing speed, attentional control, memory, and cognitive and social control that result from playing specific games are well documented. Because behavioral changes arise from brain changes, it is also no surprise that performance improvements are paralleled by enduring physical and functional neurological remodeling.
Although the idea of using video games in educational and rehabilitative settings has been around for decades, as a field we’re probably still only in the very early stages of learning how to effectively harness the power of video games while simultaneously attempting to produce a desired educational outcome. There have been several trials of video games in educational and rehabilitation settings. As more game developers turn their attention to educational and/or clinical applications, new fields are emerging in which educational and medical practitioners are collaborating with game designers to develop fun and attractive activities that will guarantee a fun time on task and at the same time have the educational or rehabilitation impact that experts in the field are seeking. These game-like computer-based training programs represent the first wave in an impending revolution for brain training in schools, medicine, and the broader society. In the future, such computer-guided brain training may be employed to substantially improve the performance of almost every child in school. In parallel, using this approach to drive strengthening, ameliorative or corrective changes that increase resilience in people who are at risk for certain illnesses like dementia, or to treat patients whose brain function is impaired by illness, is rapidly emerging as an important new dimension of psychiatric and neurological medicine.
Perhaps, the greatest challenge facing us right now is the trap of biased and dichotomous thinking. Most scientists are either critics or proponents of games and gaming research. This has a detrimental effect on the field and serves to increase rhetoric and limit research. There are at least five dimensions that have been proposed, along which video games can have effects on the brain and behavior- the content, context, structure, and mechanics of games, and the time spent game playing.
When all these dimensions are taken into account it is often possible to explain how research findings that initially seem to be contradictory are actually congruent. But, how can we intelligently control this burgeoning field?
First, we should work to further integrate cognitive neuroscience with educational science and clinical medicine. Our understanding of the differences between the operational brains of normal versus developmentally, neurologically or psychiatrically impaired individuals is rapidly increasing, as is our understanding of the neural bases of human intelligence and ability. This knowledge will provide the foundation for both designing and confirming the effectiveness of gaming/training tools. Second, the entry of new game-like training programs into schools and clinics must be based on controlled, high-standard trials. The scientific community and the public should insist that any medical claims about training programs are based on formal review processes like the ones followed by the FDA. Third, the public would benefit from standards organizations that objectively quantify the positive and negative consequences of the intensive use of specific video games. Finally, we should intensify our efforts to determine how our growing screen dependence in our everyday lives is changing us in ways that both strengthen and weaken us, as individuals and as a society.
There is no question that the same characteristics that make many games effective teachers of perceptual and cognitive skills can also be harnessed to produce maladaptive effects on the brain and behavior. There is an extremely large body of research demonstrating a relationship between playing certain types of violent video games and increases in measures of aggressive thoughts. However, the subtleties regarding the size of the effects reported in published research are often sorely lacking in popular treatments of the topic. Intensive game-play practices have been shown to have several negative effects on cognition. First, exposure to fast action games, on a play level that applies to the average regular gamer, has been shown to contribute to an increase in ADHD-related behaviors and can lead to listlessness and discontent in slower-paced and less stimulating academic, work, or social environments. Second, time spent playing such games is time spent away from other school or work-related, social, or outdoor activities. As noted earlier, despite the cognitive gains that are potentially attributable to it, heavy gameplay, especially to a level of addiction, is inversely correlated with academic, occupational, and social success. Third, action games with anti-social, ultra-violent content, which are particularly addictive and provide particularly strong motivational bases for driving positive cognitive changes, have been shown to reduce empathy, to reduce the stress associated with observing or initiating anti-social actions, and to increase confrontational and disruptive behaviors in the real world. These effects can be expected to increase as the images and scenarios in action games become more realistic. The increasingly heavy use of video games and related VR simulation environments for training combat military personnel provides clear testimony of their effectiveness for inuring the ‘player’ against the social challenges and stresses associated with observing or voluntarily initiating aggressive and violent behaviors. Although we can appreciate the value of such training for soldiers, policemen, or emergency room technicians, there is a serious question as to whether or not intensive exposures to such scenarios contribute positively to empathy and human understanding in the greater society. Fourth, games can be intensely addictive. Addiction generates its own special destructive class of neurological, psychological, and social burdens. Being pathologically addicted means, among other things, an actual reduction in the ability to function normally in society. Thus, an individual who plays video games forty hours per week may not meet the criteria for being a pathological user, whereas others may exhibit pathological signs despite substantially less total usage.
To conclude, violent video games alone are unlikely to turn a child with no other risk factors into a maniacal killer. However, in children with many risk factors, the size of the effect may be sufficient to have practical negative consequences. The evidence that playing video games induces criminal or serious physical violence is much weaker than the evidence that games increase the types of aggression that happen every day in school hallways. It should also be noted that the daily time spent playing video games in school-age children has been shown to be inversely correlated with academic achievement, arguably because time spent playing video games is time stolen from reading and curriculum-related academic study. In terms of the possibility of video games potentially causing ‘reduced attention, we have yet another concept that means different things to different people. If one means the ability to rapidly and efficiently filter visual distractors that are quickly presented ie visual attention, then clearly playing action games greatly enhances this ability. However, if one means the ability to sustain focus on a slowly evolving stream of information, such as paying attention in class, there is recent work that suggests that total screen time, and video game playing time in particular, may have negative effects. Thus, although parents, politicians, and policy-makers typically want to view this issue as black or white and seek simplistic yes or no answers to questions such as ‘Should I let my child play video games?’, there is simply no getting around the fact that any complex training regimen is likely to produce a myriad of behavioral effects. Simply put, the gaming world really is grey, and the answer to the above question is always ‘It depends!’.