Cognitive Benefits of Playing Video Games
By: Sai Srihaas Potu
Over the last 40 years, video games have increasingly had a transformational impact on how people play and enjoy themselves, as well as on many more aspects of their lives. Contrary to popular belief, which sees male children or teenagers as main targets of the gaming industry, the average player is instead 30 years old, and the entire gaming population is roughly equally divided into male and female players, therefore representing a daily activity for a consistent percentage of the adult population.
Thanks to the wide availability on the market, the affordable cost, and the massive popularity, video games already represent crucial tools as a source of entertainment and are soon expected to become critical in other fields, including the mental health panorama.
Research studies suggest that there is a link between playing certain video games and improved decision-making abilities and cognitive flexibility. There is an observable difference between the brain structure of individuals who play video games frequently and those who do not. Video gaming increases brain volume in areas responsible for fine motor skill control, the formation of memories, and for strategic planning. Video gaming could potentially play a therapeutic role in the treatment of a variety of brain disorders and conditions resulting from brain injury.
Video gaming causes increases in the brain regions responsible for spatial orientation, memory formation, and strategic planning as well as fine motor skills. This has been shown in a new study conducted at the Max Planck Institute for Human Development and Charité University Medicine St. Hedwig-Krankenhaus. The positive effects of video gaming may also prove relevant in therapeutic interventions targeting psychiatric disorders.
In order to investigate how video games affect the brain, scientists in Berlin have asked adults to play the video game Super Mario 64 over a period of two months for 30 minutes a day. A control group did not play video games. Brain volume was quantified using magnetic resonance imaging (MRI).
In comparison to the control group, the video gaming group showed increases in grey matter, in which the cell bodies of the nerve cells of the brain are situated. These plasticity effects were observed in the right hippocampus, right prefrontal cortex, and the cerebellum. These brain regions are involved in functions such as spatial navigation, memory formation, strategic planning, and fine motor skills of the hands. Most interestingly, these changes were more pronounced the more desire the participants reported playing the video game.
While previous studies have shown differences in the brain structure of video gamers, the present study can demonstrate the direct causal link between video gaming and a volumetric brain increase. This proves that specific brain regions can be trained using video games.
Therefore the researchers believe that video games could be therapeutically useful for patients with mental disorders in which brain regions are altered or reduced in size, e.g. schizophrenia, post-traumatic stress disorder, or neurodegenerative diseases such as Alzheimer’s dementia. Further studies to investigate the effects of video gaming in patients with mental health issues are planned. A study on the effects of video gaming in the treatment of post-traumatic stress disorder is currently ongoing.
Playing video games is not just for kids and young adults. Video games have been found to improve cognitive function in older adults. These cognitive improvements in memory and attention were not only beneficial but lasting as well. After training with a 3-D video game specifically designed to improve cognitive performance, the 60 to 85-year-old individuals in the study performed better than 20 to 30-year-old individuals playing the game for the first time. Studies, such as this one, indicate that playing video games can reverse some of the cognitive decline associated with increased age.
Studies also indicate that playing certain video games can improve visual attention. It is important to note that the type of video game played is a significant factor regarding visual attention enhancement. Games such as Halo, which require rapid responses and divided attention to visual information, increase visual attention, while other types of games do not. When training non-video gamers with action video games, these individuals showed improvement in visual attention. It is believed that action games could have applications in military training and therapeutic treatments for certain visual impairments.
While some studies highlight the positive benefits of playing video games, others point to some of its potential negative aspects. A study indicates that playing violent video games makes some adolescents more aggressive. Depending on certain personality traits, playing violent games can elicit aggression in some teens. Teenagers who are easily upset, depressed, have little concern for others, break rules, and act without thinking are more influenced by violent games than those with other personality traits.
Personality expression is a function of the frontal lobe of the brain. According to Christopher J. Ferguson, video games are harmless for the vast majority of kids but are harmful to a small minority with pre-existing personality or mental health problems. Teenagers who are highly neurotic, less agreeable, and less conscientious have a greater propensity to be negatively affected by violent video games.
Other studies suggest that for most gamers, aggression is not related to violent video content but feelings of failure and frustration. A study demonstrated that failure to master a game led to displays of aggression in players regardless of video content. The researchers pointed out that games such as Tetris or Candy Crush can elicit as much aggression as violent games like World of Warcraft or Grand Theft Auto.
When playing video games, coordination and concentration can physically, socially, and mentally benefit the user. Research today shows that certain video games can reduce fat and therefore promote weight loss. Other sources state that doctors have instructed parents to let their children play video games to help control focus. However, further research is necessary in order to understand the true psychological ramifications of video games on our psychical, emotional, and mental health.
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