This is Your Brain on Video Games

Can playing video games make our brains smarter, better, faster, and stronger?

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Bearded Man Playing Video Games on his Gaming PC

Video games have been making the news ever since the first Pong player used the two-dimensional paddle to hit the ball back and forth. In the decades since, video games and online gaming have advanced by leaps and bounds. Better graphics and a more immersive experience may have been too much, though; in 2018 the WHO classified binge gaming as a mental health disorder.

But the vast majority of online gamers don’t need to consult with a mental health professional to treat excessive video game playing. In fact, there’s growing evidence that suggests that powering up a gaming PC and leaping into the world of online gaming has plenty of positive benefits on the brain and one’s mental health. Researchers are even studying how gaming can improve one’s cognitive and perceptual abilities.

Here are some positive ways gaming affects the brain:

Improve executive function
First-person shooter games (also called FPS games) are the gaming world’s most controversial genre. That said, cognitive researchers from the University of Rochester have found that many of these fast-paced video games can help you learn, focus, and multitask better. When you’re gaming, you’re exercising your executive functioning skills, including attention, working memory, and perception. And when you’re deep into FPS games, you’ve got to think quickly and with accuracy. The result: gaming can supplement improved cognitive functioning.

During her TED talk — Your Brain on Video Games — Professor Daphne Bavelier discussed the positive benefits of playing action shooter games in reasonable doses. In a controlled lab study, Bavelier discovered that when reading an eye chart, gamers scored higher in the visual activity test than non-gamers. In fact, because gamers spend more time focusing their eyes on the screen, they can better resolve small details. This means playing FPS games and other fast-paced action games can help retrain the brain to see things better.

Mood management
Gamers already know that playing their favorite games impacts their mood. That’s because gaming can help direct the course of one’s natural emotional rhythm — it’s an excellent way to manage your mood. A study in 2006 explored the motivational pull of playing video games. It asked how playing video games relates to the well-established psychology model of well-being — the Self-Determination Theory (SDT). In the SDT, there are three domains linked to human motivation and fulfillment: Autonomy, Competence, and Relatedness.

In a controlled environment, the study found that the subjects who played video games experienced decreased levels of physical stress and improved mood when compared to the subjects who did not play. Gaming activated all three SDT domains! On the flip side, the same study also showed that obsessive players showed less improvement in those areas.

Reduce stress and anxiety and form connections
A 2015 study included an online survey of over 3000 people (90% male) playing massively multiplayer online roleplaying games (MMORPGs). The goal of the study was to explore the link between trauma, distress, and gaming addiction. Those who played for escape and competition and were more likely to have gaming addiction problems. One the other hand, the study found that the gamers playing MMORPGs to cope with psychiatric symptoms experienced reduced levels of stress and anxiety, without any signs of gaming addiction.

There was a time when gamers were seen as loners, playing in their basement or a bedroom surrounded by stacked pizza boxes. And while some gamers may lack social skills due to shyness, physical disabilities, or something else, there’s a place where they can meet. The online gaming community is where gamers can connect with others and build confidence.

Stimulate mature brains

Adults are playing video games well into their senior years, and research suggests that playing video games is good for the brains of older adults. Researchers at the University of Montreal discovered that seniors who played video games at least five days a week saw an improvement in their short-term memory. They also found an increase in gray matter volume in the hippocampus and cerebellum.

Besides helping to improve cognitive functions, gaming is fun and can be a motivator in life. At least, that’s how Hamako Mori, the Guinness world record holder as the oldest gaming YouTuber, feels. This nonagenarian keeps her brain sharp and her fingers nimble playing games such as Call of Duty and NieR: Automata daily. 

The wrap-up
Can playing video games make our brains smarter, better, faster, and stronger? It’s definitely something to look into. With more and more research debunking the negative impact of video games and highlighting the positive effects on the brain, the future of gaming looks bright. Whether you’re a “noob” or a gaming pro, even gaming as little as 30 minutes can boost your brain and cognitive skills.

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