Decades before the Gamergate and its aftermath blew up the internet, video games had its fierce detractors — people who recognized the medium’s pervasive influence and immediately feared the worst — seeing it as a corrupting force on the people who played them. In the years since we moved from gaming consoles to mass online interactive games, experts began to recognize symptoms of a new disorder — “internet gaming disorder” (IGD) recognized by the American Psychiatric Association as a “condition for further study.”
People suffering from IGD not only find themselves obsessed with online multiplayer games while neglecting other interests, but they typically suffer from stress and other forms of cognitive impairment as they may turn to interactive play to overcome feelings of anxiety or guilt. They also have been known to experience symptoms of withdrawal when they stop playing for extended periods of time. Some research suggests that IGD is more common in men than women but presently, there is very little research focusing on the brains of people with IGD.
A new study conducted in China decided to explore this further, presenting their findings this month at the annual conference of the Radiological Society of North America. The research, a joint collaboration with teams at the University School of Medicine in Shanghai, China, and the Department of Radiology at Ren Ji Hospital, used functional MRI to look at the brains of 32 men and 23 women believed to have IGD. As a control, they also selected 30 men and 22 women in good mental health.
The resting-state fMRI technology allowed researchers a glimpse of brain activity when its occupant was not engaged in any given task. In their study, the researchers looked at the patterns of brain activity as seen on fMRI and scored them using the Barratt Impulsiveness Scale 11, a test used to determine the subject’s degree of personal inhibition.
The experiment revealed several distinctions among the men and women who had IGD. Men affected with IGD showed alterations in regional- and network-level brain function compared to their counterparts. Most dramatically, they showed a decrease in brain activity in the superior frontal gyrus, a portion of the prefrontal lobe that plays a role in controlling impulses and plays a key part in self-awareness, responding to sensory feedback. The women with IGD, by contrast, showed no decrease in this area.
“Our findings demonstrated that alterations in cerebral activity are observed in men with IGD, but not in women with IGD, and that the lower brain activity in the superior frontal gyrus in men with IGD may be associated with higher impulsivity,” said the study’s author, Dr. Yawen Sun of Ren Ji Hospital.
The different rates at which men’s and women’s brains mature could also play a role in how IGD alters the brain, according to Dr. Sun. Therefore, the disorder may act along gender-specific patterns of brain function. The prefrontal cortex, involved in planning and decision-making, for example, often matures later in men.
“Men have shown lower levels of impulse control in comparison with women, and their impulse control also increases more gradually,” she said. It is therefore likely that young men may experiment with internet usage for longer periods of time than their female counterparts. Stunted development of the prefrontal cortex could have a relationship with higher degrees of impulsivity, something also seen in earlier studies of controlled substance addiction. Already, the number of papers that tie IGD with typical substance abuse issues is piling up.
What is up for further debate, however, is whether the functional and structural changes that characterize this disorder are actually the result of constant online gaming, or if they simply make you more likely to seek out the reward that long hours of gaming seem to offer.