Video gaming is an extremely popular leisure-time activity with more than two billion users worldwide (Newzoo, 2017). However, the media as well as professionals have underscored the potential dangers of excessive video gaming. Due to their widespread use, scientists have researched how video games affect the brain and behaviour. Are these effects positive or negative?
Results revealed a medium-sized negative correlation between problematic video gaming and psychological functioning with regard to psychological symptoms, affectivity, coping, and self-esteem.
Video games sales continue to increase year on year. In 2016, the video game industry sold more than 24.5 billion games – up from 23.2 billion in 2015, and 21.4 billion in 2014.
The top three best-selling video games of 2016 were Call of Duty: Infinite Warfare, Battlefield 1, and Grand Theft Auto V. These games fall into the first-person shooter or action-adventure genres – the top two genres, accounting for 27.5 percent and 22.5 percent of sales, respectively. First-person shooter and action genres often stand accused of stirring aggression and causing violence and addiction.
Parents and professionals may be worried about their excessively playing children being “addicted.” However, problematic and potentially addictive video game use goes beyond the extent of playing (in hours per week). It also includes such issues as craving, loss of control, and negative consequences of excessive gaming. While it is still a matter of debate whether problematic video game play should be considered a behavioural addiction, its status as a mental disorder has been clarified since the release of the DSM-5 in 2013. In the DSM-5, the American Psychiatric Association (2013) defined Internet Gaming Disorder with diagnostic criteria closely related to Gambling Disorder. Generally, this decision has been supported by many researchers (e.g., Petry et al., 2014) but has also caused controversies. Researchers have criticized the selection of diagnostic criteria and the vague definition of the Internet Gaming Disorder construct, which excludes offline games from being related to addictive use (e.g., Griffiths et al., 2016; Bean et al., 2017).
Scientists have recently collected and summarised results from 116 scientific studies to determine how video games can influence our brains and behaviours. The findings of their review were published in Frontiers in Human Neuroscience.
“Games have sometimes been praised or demonised, often without real data backing up those claims. Moreover, gaming is a popular activity, so everyone seems to have strong opinions on the topic,” says Marc Palaus, first author of the review.
By looking at all research to date, Palaus and team aimed to observe whether any trends had emerged with regard to how video games impact the structure and activity of the brain. A total of 22 of the reviewed studies explored structural changes in the brain and 100 studies analysed changes in brain functionality and behaviour.
Results of the studies indicate that playing video games not only changes how our brains perform but also their structure.
The studies included in the review show that video game players display improvements in several types of attention, including sustained attention and selective attention. Furthermore, the regions of the brain that play a role in attention are more efficient in gamers compared with non-gamers, and they require less activation to stay focused on demanding tasks.
Evidence also demonstrates that playing video games increases the size and competence of parts of the brain responsible for visuospatial skills – a person’s ability to identify visual and spatial relationships among objects. In long-term gamers and individuals who had volunteered to follow a video game training plan, the right hippocampus was enlarged.
Researchers have discovered that video gaming can be addictive – a phenomenon known as “Internet gaming disorder.”
“It’s likely that video games have both positive (on attention, visual and motor skills) and negative aspects (risk of addiction), and it is essential we embrace this complexity,” Palaus continues.