The latest report damning the effects of video games on the brain has just landed. But, instead of being a laboured way of kicking video games, it’s actually an insightful look into how games – specifically “action video games” – can physically change the composition of the human brain.
The research, published today in Molecular Psychiatry, looks at the impact of “action video games” on the brain. Its author, Greg West, discovered that regular players of popular first-person shooters have less grey matter present in the hippocampus. This is an issue because it’s responsible for consolidating short-term and long-term memory as well as aiding in navigation and spatial memory.
If you start losing grey matter from your hippocampus, you’re putting yourself at risk of brain diseases and illnesses such as PTSD, Alzheimer’s and even the likes of depression or schizophrenia.
West, along with McGill University associate professor of psychiatry Véronique Bohbot, aren’t out to get video games though – in fact, they genuinely see a benefit in game-based therapy for helping patients. What West is advocating, however, is an understanding of what different types of video games can do to the brain and an awareness from developers to help fix it moving forward.
“Video games have been shown to benefit certain cognitive systems”
“Video games have been shown to benefit certain cognitive systems in the brain, mainly related to visual attention and short-term memory,” said West. “But there is also behavioural evidence that there might be a cost to that, in terms of the impact on the hippocampus.”
To help understand just what those effects were, West carried out a full neuro-imaging study where his team scanned the brains of “habitual players of action video games” and compared them to non-players. “What we saw was less grey matter in the hippocampus of habitual players,” explained West. “We then followed that up with two longitudinal studies to establish causality, and we found that it was indeed the gaming that led to changes in the brain.”
The test was carried out across 100 people using Call of Duty, Killzone and Borderlands 2 as the “action video games” and a few 3D platformers from the Super Mario series as a non-action standard. Participants were required to play 90 hours of non-action and 90 hours of action video games.
Players were also split into two groups, “response learners” and “spatial learners”. Response learners can be likened to the twitch gamer who navigates through an environment based on input memory. The sort that knows their way around the intricacies of a multiplayer level because they’ve remembered the directions. Spatial learners, however, navigate based on visual information and landmarks. Instead of simply following a path from pure memory, they look out for cues that remind them where to go next.
To establish which participants were spatial versus response, West and his team asked them each to virtually run through a maze on their computer. They had to navigate four identical-looking paths to capture objects, then, after their gates were removed, go down the four others.
To remember which paths they’d already been down and not waste time looking for the objects they’d already taken, spatial learners oriented themselves by the landmarks in the background: a rock, a mountains, two trees. Response learners ignored the landmarks and concentrated instead on remembering a series of right and left turns in a sequence from their starting position.
Despite both groups playing the same games for the same amount of time, the likes of Call of Duty, Killzone and Borderlands 2 led to atrophy in the hippocampus for response learners. The Super Mario games, on the other hand, led to an increase of grey matter in the hippocampus for all participants.
“Because spatial strategies were shown to be associated with increases in hippocampal grey matter during video game playing, it remains possible that response learners could be encouraged to use spatial strategies to counteract against negative effects on the hippocampal system,” the paper explains.
In their current state, first-person shooters easily allow players “to navigate with a response-route-following strategy without relying on the relationships between landmarks, fundamental to the spatial strategy.” Put more simply, the games are more repetitive and require less overall brain function than non-action games. The paper outlines that the major culprits tend to be games “designed without in-game GPS, or [without] wayfinding routes overlaid on the game’s display for the player to follow.”
With more people playing video games than ever before, along with more people watching games and the rise of first-person shooters like Overwatch, it’s important to consider the long-term effects these games could have physically on the body. It’s one thing to decry games as fueling violent behaviour with little-to-no evidence to back it up, but when it comes to your own brain health, this study provides what appear to be uncomfortable conclusions.
It should be noted that the study sample is relatively small. It also doesn’t account for longer-term gameplay or look at the brains of gamers who play both types of games, or a variety of games. The findings could show one effect balances out the other.
One thing that’s good to know is that, despite the study broadly claiming “video games can harm your brain”, playing a bit of Super Mario is actually great for your mental wellbeing.