It is safe to say that video games here to stay. Gamers collectively spend 3 billion hours per week wearing out their thumbs. Scientists studied how video games affected the brain of gamers.
Some hypothesized that video games would encourage aggressive tendencies, while others suggested games may be the next therapeutic tool in rehabilitative medicine.
In the U.S., at least 150 million people play video games regularly, which is to say about three hours a week. About 72 percent of gamers are older than 18, and gamers collectively bought more than 24 billion games in 2014. Many of those games involved first-person shooter (FPS) or action narratives, which have been blamed for internet gaming disorder. This is a syndrome where the gamer spends more time in the virtual world than in the real one and begins to have difficulty separating reality from fantasy. However, at the 10-year mark for some of the video game research, the link between video game violence and real-life violence does not seem to exist. Based on the conclusion of many long-term studies, a number of scientists agree that if you play video games long enough, it can change your brain in the ways discussed below.
Recently, the journal Frontiers in Human Neuroscience published an article claiming that gamers who are considered addicts undergo functional and structural changes in their brains. This means that playing video games to excess can change how the brain performs, as well as how it is wired. However, for those who were not addicted to gaming, not all the changes were bad.
In some ways, the brain changes caused by video games were positive. For example, scientists found improvements by video game players in the part of the brain responsible for paying attention and focusing. Gamers have a sustained attention ability that many non-gamers do not possess, and gamers require less “activation” to remain focused on particularly demanding tasks. Additionally, the brain actually grew in size in the areas responsible for special skills, also known as the right hippocampus. This is the area of the brain responsible for an individual’s ability to recognize and identify spatial and visual relationships between objects.
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However, gamers playing first-person shooter (FPS) games like Call of Duty were shown to have a reduction in the part of the brain associated with stress regulation and spatial navigation. Scientists now believe this is because while one area is receiving training and increased in size, the other areas become neglected and may be at risk of atrophy.
Researchers observed the brains of players who played World of Warcraft (WoW) and found that these players had improved abilities for problem solving. A similar study focused on children who played Civilization V or the game Fable and found identical results with an improvement in the problem-solving capacity of the children. This indicates there may be some link to video games and a rewiring of the brain to solve problems more efficiently.
Unfortunately, there is a downside to gaming. In addition to the good kinds of structural changes that video games cause in the brain, they can also lead to addiction. Those who are addicted experience structural changes in the neural reward system similar to what occurs with many types of addiction. This area of the brain is responsible for how individuals register motivation, pleasure and learning. Scientists found the areas lighting up under brain scans for gamers were the same areas lighting up for those who had other addictions.
Although diagnosing addiction is not always easy, there are a few signs that those addicted to video games may exhibit. Addicts may feel irritable or restless when they cannot play video games. They may isolate themselves from others excessively in order to play games and may lie about their habits. Gaming addicts cut off from their regular amount of gaming time can also experience withdrawal. In young adults, teens and children, researchers observed that the addicted gamer often becomes violent.
For those who have suffered traumatic brain injury or older individuals hoping to stave off Alzheimer’s or slow memory loss due to age, video games show great promise. Nature Magazine recent published an article reporting cognitive performance improvement using 3D video games with seniors. The studies cited in the article suggest that video games can offer a type of brain training that may be beneficial toward reversing or slowing down age-related brain decline.
Impressively, study participants who were between the ages of 60 and 85 received 12 hours of training over the span of a month. At the end of the month, the improvement was so significant that the seniors were surpassing 20-year-old gamers on the same tasks. Working memory and the ability to pay attention longer dramatically increased. Even after the trial concluded, participants were still experiencing the benefits up to six months afterward.
Early results indicate that seniors who are in danger of mental decline or those who have sustained an injury to the brain can play video games for 30 minutes a day with observable, beneficial results. Strategy games, researchers indicate, offer more in the way of improving higher-order cognitive skills and may help stave off many forms of dementia and Alzheimer’s disease experience. Partnered with physical activity, scientists agree it seems to be a winning combination.
Many therapists are venturing to use video games as a treatment to improve mood in adults with cognitive impairment or for those patients suffering from mental health issues like depression. Researchers at the University of California, Davis found similar results using specifically designed video games. Participants reported feeling as if they had some control over their lives and therefore could control their depression. The use of video games in therapy is still in its infancy. However, the early findings seem promising. Many studies are currently ongoing.
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