This Is Your Brain On Games

January 24th, 2015 No Comments Features


Illustration by Terry Fan

The past year has illuminated many things about the way the brain works, including how it responds to games. It is now erroneous to conflate ten hours of Super Mario with minor head trauma. We know that you won’t go blind if you’re looking for coins and bananas and rings on a screen all day. Your motivation and attention span will remain intact no matter what level you reach in Skyrim. In fact, the very latest science is telling us the exact opposite of what we thought all along: video games actually increase brain function.

“Action video games have a number of ingredients that are actually really powerful for brain plasticity, learning, attention, and vision,” says brain scientist Daphne Bavelier in her TED Talk on the subject.

Findings like Bavelier’s have been cropping up over the last few years, forcing us to reevaluate our firmly held beliefs. Many educators now use video games in formal learning settings, and others are teaming up with members of the gaming industry to design programs that target specific learning goals. The controversy is ebbing, and this year neuroscientists have discovered something that may end the discussion once and for all:

Video games actually make the brain bigger.

Bigger, Better, Faster, Stronger

A new study, presented at the Alzheimer’s Association International Conference 2014, has found that playing games actually increases brain volume. The findings build on previous studies which have linked playing video games to larger brain structures.

Stephanie Schultz and colleagues at two Alzheimer’s research institutes in Wisconsin examined 329 middle-aged people who did not currently have dementia, but many of whom were at risk because of their family history. Along with a brain scan, they were surveyed to see how cognitively active they were: how much they played games, read books, went to museums and so on. The results showed that people who played the most games–like crosswords, checkers, cards and puzzles–also had the largest brain volume.

“Our findings suggest that, for some individuals, engagement in cognitively stimulating activities, especially those involving games such as puzzles and cards, might be a useful approach for preserving brain structures and cognitive functions that are vulnerable to Alzheimer’s disease,” Schultz says.

Because of the design of the study, it’s hard to tell if playing games is really affecting brain size or if other factors may be at play. For example, it may be that people with larger brains happen to play more games. But there is other research that has linked game-playing with larger brain volumes.

In a study published last year, German researchers asked people to play video games for 30 minutes a day over a 2 month period. Their brain volumes were then compared with a control group. People who’d been playing the game (Super Mario 64) had larger grey matter structures in areas of the brain associated with memory, spatial navigation, strategic planning, and fine motor skills.

The study’s lead author, Simone Kuhn, explained: “While previous studies have shown differences in 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 by means of video games.”

Kuhn conducted a follow-up study earlier this year, recruiting 150 male and female 14-year-olds to play 12 hours of video games per week. He found “a robust positive association between cortical thickness and video gaming duration” in teens who invested the most time in games. Even more telling, the cortical matter increased in two different areas of teens’ brains: the prefrontal cortex, which is responsible for decision-making and self-control, and the Frontal Eye Fields (FEF), which govern visual-motor processing. The fact that two cortical areas are involved suggests that gamers may be better at multi-tasking and decision-making than non-gamers.

In August, British researchers found that certain video games, particularly strategic games such as “Starcraft,” can increase a player’s “brain flexibility,” which the scientists described as “a cornerstone of human intelligence.”

The study, conducted at Queen Mary University of London and University College London, is based on psychological tests conducted before and after 72 volunteers played “Starcraft” or the life-simulation game “The Sims” for 40 hours over six to eight weeks. They found that participants assigned to play “Starcraft” experienced gains in their performance on psychological tests, completing cognitive flexibility tasks with greater speed and accuracy.

Even more significant, we now know that these effects can last over a long period of time. When Bavelier asked subjects to do a simple mental rotation task, followed by several hours of action games over the course of a few weeks, she found that they were far better at the rotation task when tested again after the gaming period. But here’s the best part: the improvement was still there five months after having done the training.

“That’s really, really important,” Bavelier says. “Why? Because [if] we want to use these games for education or for rehabilitation, we need to have effects that are going to be long-lasting.”

Using the Neuroscience of Games to Boost Learning

The University of California, San Francisco has opened a new laboratory to explore these patterns further. The Neuroscape Lab is esentially a room containing two large screens. One screen displays a game; the other displays what’s going on in the gamer’s brain as he or she plays. Neuroscape’s team is working to design the most entertaining and educational program imaginable: a game that responds to your brain activity, sensing where a particular task activates the brain, and then adjusting to challenge that particular network.

Bavelier puts it this way: “After one month of release of the game Call Of Duty: Black Ops, it had been played for 68,000 years worldwide, right? Would any of you complain if this was the case about doing linear algebra?”

“The game will essentially understand where the weaknesses are, and then change the mechanics to put pressure on those processes to lead to improvements,” Gazalley told Amy Standen, radio reporter for KQED Science.

But will these improvements transfer to brain function outside of the gaming world?

It appears that they will. Here is some of the new and fast-growing research that supports the idea of transferred learning:

  • In a paper published in Nature last September, Gazzaley and his co-authors showed that older adults were better at multi-tasking in real life scenarios after training on a game called NeuroRacer. They first recruited around 30 participants for each of six decades of life, from the 20s to the 70s, and confirmed that multi-tasking skills as measured by the game deteriorated linearly with age. They then recruited 46 participants aged 60–85 and put them through a 4-week training period with a version of NeuroRacer that increased in difficulty as the player improved. After training, subjects had improved so much that they achieved higher scores than untrained 20-year-olds, and the skill remained six months later without practice.
  • In February, Italian researchers found that playing fast-paced video games can improve the reading skills of children with dyslexia. The team separated children aged 7 to 13 into two groups, one of which played an action game called “Rayman Raving Rabids,” while the other played a slower-paced game. When the reading skills of the children were tested afterwards, those who played the action game were capable of reading faster and more accurately. The authors of the study hypothesised that the action games helps kids increase their attention spans, a skill considered crucial to reading.
  • In 2012, scientists at The University of Texas Medical Branch at Galveston found that high school gamers who played video games two hours a day were better at performing virtual surgery than non-gaming medical residents. The players had completed a series of tasks on a device that replicated real surgeries and measured skills in 32 different categories, such as hand-eye coordination, pressure on the controls and timing. A separate study found that surgeons who played video games for at least 3 hours a week saw 37 percent fewer mistakes during laparoscopic surgery.

So when will we start accepting this data enough to use it in a formal learning setting? Bavelier puts it this way: “After one month of release of the game Call Of Duty: Black Ops, it had been played for 68,000 years worldwide, right? Would any of you complain if this was the case about doing linear algebra?”

We need to drop the assumption that video games lead to brain rot and embrace the very real picture scientists are painting for us.

How to Ditch Your Biases

We’ve all heard, and probably believed, the idea that too much screen time makes your eyesight worse. Well, Bavelier has actually tested this statement in the lab. People who don’t play a lot of action games, and don’t actually spend a lot of time in front of screens, have normal vision, she says. What happens when these people indulge in playing video games five hours per week, 10 hours per week, 15 hours per week? Their vision improves. It’s better than those that don’t play.

“And it’s better in two different ways,” Bavelier says. “The first way is that they’re actually able to resolve small detail in the context of clutter,” like being able to read the fine print on a prescription without needing a magnifying glass. “The other way that they are better is actually being able to resolve different levels of gray. Imagine you’re driving in a fog. That makes a difference between seeing the car in front of you and avoiding the accident, or getting into an accident.”

Bavelier says her team is actually leveraging that work to develop games for patients with low vision, and to have an impact on retraining their brain to see better. Clearly, when it comes to action video games, screen time doesn’t make your eyesight worse.

Another idea you’ve heard before is that video games lead to attention problems and greater distractability. Bavelier has measured that in the lab, too, and found that people who play a lot of action games are actually more attentive.

“Actually, those action video game players have many other advantages in terms of attention, and one aspect of attention which is also improved for the better is our ability to track objects around in the world. This is something we use all the time. When you’re driving, you’re tracking, keeping track of the cars around you. You’re also keeping track of the pedestrian, the running dog, and that’s how you can actually be safe driving.”

The parietal cortex, which controls the orientation of attention, the frontal lobe, which controls how we sustain attention, and the anterior cingulate, which controls how we allocate and regulate attention and resolve conflict, all operate more efficiently in people who play action games.

Bavelier also says gamers are better at multi-tasking.

“When we design tasks on the computer where we can measure, to millisecond accuracy, how good they are at switching from one task to another, we actually find that people that play a lot of action games are really, really good. They switch really fast, very swiftly.” Different video games have a different effect on your brain, though, so Bavelier concedes that you actually need to step into the lab and really measure the effect of each video game to get an accurate picture.

The lesson here is that “general wisdom carries no weight.” Our previously held conceptions about gaming simply don’t hold when science enters the picture. It’s time for educators around the world to start paying attention to what the brain is telling us, or risk losing a priceless opportunity to engage future generations of students and enhance learning.


Saga Briggs is an author at InformED. You can follow her on Twitter@sagamilena or read more of her writing here.

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