Can Playing Video Games be Beneficial for Your Brain in the Long Run?

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November 18th, 2010

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Most of us are probably not strangers to the recent hub-bub in the media regarding the effects of video gaming on the brain.  From whinny mothers and senators complaining that graphic video games predispose our youth to violence and damage their minds, to the claims that daily “brain training” video game exercises can improve your overall mental well-being, it can be hard to determine just how video games are actually affecting our brains.  While the jury is still out as to whether or not violent video games overload the amygdala or if playing Brain Age everyday on your Nintendo DS can boost your memory and cognitive abilities, several studies produced in the last year or so have made some very interesting discoveries regarding the effects of gaming on the brain.  Though many of us may want to hear that playing StarCraft all day will predispose us to being strategic wizards and give us an edge at the next chess match, such is not the case.  The actually findings, however,  may still surprise you.null

When you think of mentally stimulating activity in the realm of video games, you probably wouldn’t think of something like Call of Duty or the Prince of Persia as a game that would really get synaptic efficacy churning.  One would probably be more inclined to attribute that to electronic chess, or puzzle games like Tetris or Bejeweled, or even a tactical strategy game like Command and Conquer.  According to most independent studies into video gaming, however, it actually has been shown that fast paced, action gaming (and more commonly first person shooter games) just like Call of Duty are the only types of video games that provide any beneficial effects on the brain.  That’s right, your annoying roommate and all his obnoxious friends playing Halo at 3 am while you are trying to devise the perfect battle plan in WarCraft are doing something more mentally constructive than you!  How exactly though do video games provide any benefit (karma, magic, summoned magical demons!?) and what areas of the brain do they act upon?

By testing the reaction times of groups of patients both with and without extensive video gaming experience, researchers C. Shawn Green and Daphne Bavelier seem to have provided evidence that playing video games can substantially boost one’s overall attentional skills.  Unlike subjects without any experience playing video games, Green and Bavelier observed that gamers exhibited a much stronger ability to fixate upon specific visual and spatial cues while filtering out superfluous ones.  Subjects with gaming experience also displayed much faster reaction times in the spatial localization and object recognition tests that Green and Bavelier administered to them.  Even more interesting was that the researchers observed that these attentional abilities were not just specific to the test paradigms themselves, and could be applied to multiple other tests and situations with similarly above average results.

When you consider the circumstances of the kind of video games that these subjects are used to performing under, these results seem to make sense.  The action and pace of the games are fast and sporadic, with stimuli randomly popping up all over the place.  The gamers are constantly conditioned and trained to respond quickly to certain stimuli, while filtering other unimportant stimuli out (and of course, they are rewarded for proper responses by either advancing further in the game or winning in general).  Another important aspect of these games that Bavelier points to is the fact that there is no set of right/wrong answers or a specific learning paradigm in them due to how random the games are.  For this reason, and due to the fast pace such gameplay demands, Bavelier and Green also speculate that action video gaming benefits the decision making skills of gamers as well by, again, forcing them to think and react accurately and quickly to specific stimuli while ignoring/rejecting others that would lead to a mistake in the game (a skill that the two have coined as probabilistic interference).  This goes strongly against all that admonishment your mother would give you back in the day about rotting your brain away in front of the Super Nintendo.  In actuality, you could have been sharpening it!

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General model of visuomotor processing and the relative brain regions involved in such tasks.

Enhanced spatial attention and quick decision making are apparently not the only unexpected benefit of video gaming; according to a research team in Toronto, Canada, extensive gaming can also improve hand-eye coordinative tasks and overall visuomotor abilities. Through performing fMRI analysis on several test subject both with extensive gaming experience (or week long game training) and no video game experience while they conducted different visuomotor tasks (navigating a maze with joysticks, pointing in one direction while facing the other, etc.), it was found that those with gaming experience performed leagues better than those without.  Even more curious, however, was that it the gamers seemed to perform so much better and quicker than the non-gamers because they utilized a completely different neural network than the non-gamers to process the test data!  While non-gamers primarily employed their parietal lobes in the visuomotor tasks, the gamers utilized the prefrontal, premotor, primary sensorimotor and a larger portion of their parietal regions to process and respond to the tasks.

This shift in processing channels, however, did not result from viewing test information differently, or processing it differently in the retina; instead it came through a complete reorganization of the visuomotor pathways in the brain, developing a more efficient and effective pathway!  Much like Bavelier and Green, the Canadian research team seems to attribute these changes to the fast pace of action gaming and the high attention to detail that said games demand of the players.  Not only must the players translate the movements they desire for their in-game character onto the screen itself (and memorize multiple button patterns to do so), but they must constantly react as quickly and accurately as possible if they want to be able to keep playing.  The researchers even joke at one point that with all the training such games offer to the players in speed, precision and accuracy with hand-eye coordinative movements, many of them could be potential candidates for surgeons someday!

Pwning noobs today, performing life-saving laparoscopic surgery tomorrow.

Despite the fact that video games may not give us amazing deductive powers by playing puzzle games or promote superhuman prefrontal abilities through strategy gaming, they can help us respond faster and develop different processing pathways for visuomotor tasks (a prospect that could prove to be very beneficial for Alzheimer’s patients who are highly impaired in parietal visuospatial performance).  While we know that joystick and button-pad gaming can foster such benefits, it would be interesting to see if any of the new “motion controlled” types of video games could increase the development of such skills by forcing the player to move the controller in the actual direction of movement or action in the game (as pioneered by Nintendo’s Wii and the Playstation’s Move).  This would be most interesting to study in Microsoft’s Xbox Kinect console, a system that translates real time motion captured movements into the game itself, so a player can use his/her arms, legs and entire body as the controllers!  Could this foster enhanced visuomotor skills as well, or only serve to make you look silly as you prance around in front of the TV screen?

Sources and Related Reading:

Neuroscience News – Gamers Have Advantage in Performing Visuomotor Tasks

Medical News Today – Sharpening Decision-Making Skills Through Action Video Game Play

Nature Neuroscience – Carrot Sticks or Joysticks: Video Games Improve Vision

Cortex – Extensive Video Game Experience Alters Cortical Networks for Complex Visuospatial Transformations

PubMed Central – Effects of Action Video Games on the Spatial Distribution of Visuospatial Attention

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