From the Archives: Some Brain Science for #VideoGamesDay

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People are hungry for data about video games and the brain. One of our most popular stories, still consistently in the Top 10, is a longreads Cerebrum essay from back in 2009, “Video Games Affect the Brain—for Better and Worse.” Writer Douglas Gentile, Ph.D., concludes:

With the exception of educational games, most video games’ effects on brain and behavior are unintentional on the part of both the designers and the players. Nonetheless, research suggests that the effects are real. Video games are neither good nor bad. Rather, they are a powerful form of entertainment that does what good entertainment is supposed to do—it influences us.

In 2012, we followed up with a news story on research targeting more specific areas of cognition that might be affected by playing video games:

The group examined the functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) brain scans of 154 14-year-old boys and girls. When they compared the brains of frequent gamers (defined as those who played video games more than 9 hours per week) to moderate gamers they discovered that the first group showed larger volume in the left striatum, a brain area involved in risk and reward processing. In addition, the frequent gamers showed more activity in the ventral striatum when losing money during a gambling task.

“While you can’t say that this increase in volume or activity suggests that people are addicted, it would seem the striatum is more engaged in these people who play more video games,” says Wolfram Schultz, a pioneer in reward processing research, who called the result significant. “It may be changing how they perceive the rewarding aspects of the game. That is very interesting.”

In 2014, researchers Walter R. Boot, Ph.D., and Arthur F. Kramer, Ph.D., focused on “brain-training” games for another Cerebrum essay, “Does Cognitive Training Really Sharpen the Mind?

What do the sellers of cognitive-training products promise? Should consumers purchase and use them? A careful inspection reveals that most commercial brain-training companies are relatively conservative with respect to their advertised claims, at least when explicitly discussing potential improvements on everyday tasks. It is exceedingly unlikely for a company to claim that its product could help a driver avoid a dangerous crash, a worker advance his or her career, or an older adult live independently longer. Instead, claims in these commercials and advertisements are vague.

They highlight improvements to more abstract qualities, such as reaction time, attention, and memory. Few specify the exact nature of these improvements—for example, reaction to what? Memories of what? These vague claims are justified in that the products’ training tasks involve these abilities, and performance on the training tasks improves with practice.

The critical question, however, is the degree to which these improvements transfer to more meaningful activities. Cognitive-training advertisements typically ignore this issue.

Last year, we dove into the data on the effects of small-video-screen time, an area that is still ripe for debate and (sometimes) illogical discourse:

But can these writers say that screens are disrupting normal brain development with any degree of certainty? Despite the dozens of articles on the dangers of screen time to the developing brain—and the corresponding counter pieces that suggest screens aren’t the devils they’re made out to be—there is a dearth of research regarding the effects of media use on the brain. Even with that lack of empirical evidence, the conversation regarding the matter is severely biased, says Jenny Radesky, a pediatrician at the University of Michigan who consults with the American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) on childhood screen use and helped to develop the organization’s latest set of screen use guidelines[viii].

“This is an increasingly judgmental discourse among parents—being a low-tech or a high-tech parent and how it affects your children,” she says. “So much of what people are talking about does more to induce parental guilt, it seems, than to break down what the research can tell us about screen use—and that’s a real problem.”

Also last year, we invited an audience to discuss video games and the brain with three experts during an event at the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS) auditorium in Washington, DC. Speakers Chandramallika Basak, Hilarie Cash, and Craig Anderson shared their work and answered some sharp questions from the audience. The speakers sounded the same cautions as the earlier writers: Playing some video games can cause serious harm, while others might improve or restore skills, but much more research is needed to say for sure.

Then we had snacks and played classic 1980s video games! You can’t enjoy the snacks anymore, but here’s a recording of the event (or you can just read my post about it):

– Nicky Penttila

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