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This Is Your Brain on Video Games

A growing body of research suggests that video games actually change the structural and chemical makeup of the brain.

The video game industry has been growing steadily since the first consoles gained popularity in the 1980s. Today, there are an estimated 1.2 billion gamers around the world, and video game sales are projected to soon exceed $100 billion per year.

As the average age of gamers increases — it was estimated to be around 35 years in 2016 — gaming is no longer a pastime for adolescents. In addition, there are new ways to play video games, and more and more people are gaming on their smartphones or tablets, often to pass time intermittently throughout the day, for instance during their morning commute.

There’s a well-documented dark side to video games. Research has shown that video games can lead to aggression and addiction. For instance, this study found that playing violent games can provoke subtle changes in what actions and behaviors users actually deem “violent.”

Other studies, including this one from European researchers, are focused on the fraction of gamers who end up developing addiction-like symptoms as a result of excessive gaming. Internet gaming disorder, as it’s referred to by researchers, may eventually be a diagnosable disorder included in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual (DSM) used by the American Psychiatric Association (APA).

But playing video games isn’t all bad. In fact, there are cognitive, motivational, emotional, and social benefits associated with gaming in certain contexts, as many recent studies point out.

The truth is that gaming has a wide range of effects, many of which we don’t fully understand. We do know, however, that gaming causes fundamental changes to some regions of the brain, including areas associated with visuospatial skills, attention, and rewards.

A recent review of 116 scientific studies investigating how video games influence both our brains and behavior suggests that some of these changes are positive, while others are negative. Published in Frontiers of Human Neuroscience, the review was conducted by researchers in both the U.S. and Spain who wanted to gain a deeper understanding of the “neural basis” of video gaming.

The review shows that playing video games can change both brain structure and performance. For instance, several studies included in the review investigated the effects of gaming on attention.

Gaming can contribute to improvements in several types of attention, including selective attention and sustained attention. The brain regions that promote attention have been found to be more efficient in gamers, requiring less activation in order to support attention during complex tasks.

In addition, there’s some evidence to suggest that gamers’ visuospatial brain regions are larger and more efficient. For instance, one study found that the right hippocampi of long-term gamers were enlarged. The hippocampus plays an important role in spatial navigation.

Video game addiction can cause changes in the brain, too. Most of the time, these changes take place in the brain’s reward center. For the most part, they appear to be similar to the neural changes associated with other addictive disorders.

While researchers are confident that these changes occur, it’s still difficult to translate the studies to real-life settings. Often, there are a number of other variables involved, such as the type of game or the gender of the gamer.

All we know is that these changes are complex and wide-ranging. And video games have become a part of our day-to-day lives, for better or worse.

[Image via Shutterstock]

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