How much time do you spend playing video games each day? This number might change during the seasons, as you age, or if a global pandemic is forcing you to stay inside. If you tell people you play more than ten hours a week, you might raise some eyebrows. But is playing video games as bad for the brain as people think?
Not at all. Think of video games like wine or corn syrup. When consumed in moderation, video games are not evil or a brain-melting activity. But an excessive amount of time playing video games may be better spent doing other things.
In fact, video games have some positive benefits for the brain. Scientists are working to create the perfect video game that enhances cognitive skills and entertains. We’re not there yet, but we may be close!
How Do Video Games Affect the Brain?
The experience of video games gives players the opportunity to form new connections. This uses working memory and enhances task-switching but may prioritize speed over accuracy. And when players win rewards, they also activate the reward center of the brain and experience the release of hormones like dopamine.
That being said, let’s dive into some cognitive skills that may be affected by playing video games.
Video Games and Multitasking
Have you ever heard of the Stroop Effect? This is a pretty fascinating phenomenon. Here’s how it works. When presented with the names of colors written in a different color, you freeze. The task at hand is to say the color, not the word itself. But your brain is multi-tasking, reading the word and recognizing the color simultaneously. Most people blurt out the word and have to backtrack to recognize the color.
In 2018, scientists tested how video game players performed on the Stroop Test. What they found was fascinating. Although experienced video game players worked faster than those who didn’t play video games, they made more errors. Video games taught them to switch tasks fast, prioritizing speed over accuracy.
Many studies before this suggest video games can improve the ability to multitask. This doesn’t mean that you can text and drive after playing a lot of Halo. Pure multi-tasking is a myth. We cannot hold onto two tasks at once – we must switch back and forth. Video games just reduce how much time it takes to switch.
Memory and Video Games
Our brains usually have to hold onto multiple pieces of information at once, even if they are redirecting their focus back and forth. These pieces of information are stored in our working memory.
When was the last time you had to remember a phone number? Maybe you sang a song to yourself or repeated the numbers until you could write them down on paper. Of course, those numbers disappeared as soon as you started focusing on other things. That’s how our working memory works. We can juggle a few pieces of information at once, but not everything reaches our short-term and long-term memory.
Video games require strong working memory. Players must hold onto several pieces of information at once in a short amount of time. As players practice these skills, they can strengthen their working memory. (Memorizing phone numbers may become a lot easier!) Does this mean video game players have significantly better working memories than non-players? Studies say not exactly. But video games don’t hurt or numb your brain as some people say.
Reward Centers and Video Games
Our brains are affected by video games in ways that don’t only build cognitive skills. Consider our reward center. It feels good to win a game, right? Just like it feels good to send a bouldering route or check a task off your to-do list. This function of the brain explains why video games are so addicting.
To know why video games are addictive, you have to know our brains were originally built to help us survive. So when we did something that aided our survival (eating, drinking, having sex,) the brain released feel-good hormones. This center of the brain is known as the “reward center.”
Nowadays, we feel rewarded for things that are much less important to sustaining the human race. Video games feed into the reward center of the brain. Dopamine and other feel-good hormones are released when we reach a new level or earn coins. Think about how many chances there are to earn “rewards” in video games. No wonder we like them so much!
Of course, there is a downside to this quick access to dopamine and other feel-good chemicals. Our brains want to activate the reward center! The feeling can become addicting – literally. Although video addiction only affects a small percentage of gamers, it is possible to become addicted to gaming. The same is also true for other types of screen time!
Do Video Games Make Children More Violent?
We’ve all seen news stories warning parents about the perils of video games. One story may focus on children throwing tantrums when their games are turned off. Another may show the graphic images that children are witnessing as they play these games. But while many of these stories blame the game manufacturers, the real culprit is the child – or the child’s brain.
Children have underdeveloped brains. No amount of fish oil tablets or studying for tests can change this fact. The prefrontal cortex does not develop until a person has reached the age of 25. I mention this specific part of the brain because it speaks to how children and teens make decisions. The prefrontal cortex uses logic and rationale to make decisions. Other parts of the brain that develop earlier are emotionally charged. Teens aren’t emotional or rash because they choose to be. Their brains just haven’t developed the ability to step back, weigh their options fully, and make a logical decision. That’s why they scream and pout instead of trying to reason with their parents to turn their video games back on.
Parents should set limits on how often their children play video games. Experts recommend one hour a school day and two hours on a non-school day. Focusing too much time on video games starves children of the ability to form other types of connections in their brains.
As for the content of the game, parents should consider the rating of the game and how children can interact with players. Many video games offer the ability to talk to players around the world – and this chatter isn’t regulated. Play a few rounds with your child to get a sense of what media they are consuming.
Not All Video Games Are the Same
Be aware of how long you are playing games and what you are playing. Know that not all video games are the same. Video games come in different genres, like movies or TV shows. The Sims is a “sandbox game” in which players have no predetermined goal. Action games like Super Mario Bros take users through a series of levels and challenges that test their skills. Strategy games like online chess or League of Legends test your ability to think, plan, and carry out a strategy.
As you can already tell, these games have the ability to test certain parts of the brain. Different parts of the brain fire when playing Sudoku than when playing Halo. When reading information about the vague category of “video games,” look at what types of games were being studied. Are these the games you play? And how might different games affect your reward center and your ability to build certain skills?