How Do Videogames Change Your Brain?

A visit to your local GameStop can prove overwhelming when faced with the seemingly innumerable choices of videogames stacking the shelves before you. They range from shooter games like Call of Duty to sports games such as FIFA, role-playing games including Diablo, and even music and party games like Just Dance. Considering the videogame industry makes upwards of twenty billion year in revenue and around sixty percent of all U.S. households play videogames, it’s no wonder there is such a variety.

The popularity of videogames begs the question: how does consistent play affect our health – and most especially, how does it impact our brains?

Believe it or not, videogames can actually foment positive neurological effects. Indeed, one study illustrates a correlation between videogame playing and increased cortical thickness, particularly in the left dorsolateral prefrontal cortex and the left frontal eye field. These regions “are crucial players in our brain’s executive decision-making system. Greater “thickness” in these brain… indicates a greater ability to juggle multiple variables.” Another study showed a “direct causal link” between video game playing and an increase of grey matter in “the right hippocampus, right prefrontal cortex and the cerebellum – areas of the brain responsible for spatial navigation, memory formation, strategic planning and fine motor skills in the hands.”

The advantages of playing videogames are becoming increasingly more well-documented as time goes on. Further studies have demonstrated a link between videogames and improved cognitive flexibility, a reduction in pain and anxiety, improved reading skills, and an increased efficiency in “responding to sensory stimuli,” among other things.

However, these beneficial influences cannot erase the very real detriment that can occur as a result of excessive or violent videogame play. A growing body of evidence suggests that gaming can pose legitimate risks to one’s health. One study “found that those who played… violent video games showed less activity in areas that involved emotions, attention and inhibition of our impulses.” Furthermore, researchers have discovered a link between violent videogames and aggression, “with negative effects accumulating over time.”

As is also commonly believed, it seems that one can develop a degree of addiction to gaming. Many players are flooded with “a rush of dopamine when they play,” leading to a cumulative deficit in this important neurotransmitter.

This ostensibly conflicting research can lead to confusion for parents trying to decide if they should allow their kids to play videogames. The evidence seems to universally imply that violent videogames should be avoided for young and old alike. On the other hand, non-violent videogames that emphasize strategy, role-playing, and even physical activity can be a useful tool in developing a cognitive edge.

Just remember to shut off the console, put down the joystick, and play outside from time to time.

- By Betty Vine

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