Amid the controversy around video games, more scientific evidence is emerging that might allow us to view those action-packed computer or Xbox games in a more positive light.  

One new study, completed by researchers in China, examined the impact intense video gaming had on certain brain subregions. They found that action video gamers, known simply as AVGs, had more gray matter as well as improved connectivity in certain subregions of their brains. AVGs were already known to have improved attention skills and eye-hand coordination, and previous research has shown that expert AVGs had more gray matter in the brain, which is often associated with better cognitive function and memory.

In their introduction, the researchers note that little research has examined the link between “AVG experience and the plasticity of insula, an important brain area for attentional and sensorimotor functions.” They used functional MRIs (fMRIs) to analyze the brains of 27 participants who were expert AVGs — people who were regional or national champions — and compared them to 30 amateur AVGs. They concluded that AVG experts experienced an enhancement between their anterior and posterior insular subregions. In other words, AVG was associated with increased neuroplasticity, or the brain’s ability to change and develop stronger connections, memory, and cognitive function.

Expert vs amateur brain The white lines denote the pathways where experts had significant enhancements compared with amateurs. Scientific Reports

Amateur vs expert brains Colours ranging from green to yellow or red to yellow indicate increasing spatial consistency. E.g., a 40 percent value in the amateur group indicates that the relevant brain region was activated in 12 subjects. Scientific Reports

Past research has highlighted video games’ effects on the brain; one study found that playing video games frequently and intensely was associated with more cortical thickness in the brain, or essentially more density in certain brain regions. Storytelling in video games, meanwhile, may improve children’s social skills and emotional abilities — especially in those with autism. And video games have also been found to improve memory and problem-solving skills.

While all of these studies may shine a new light on video games, some skeptics remained unconvinced of the benefits of video games. One Reddit user, DiogenesInHisJar, notes in response to the newest study that “I’d suspect that if the two are exclusive, exercising 30 minutes a day is better for overall cognition than video gaming. All tasks that take time will have a noticeable effect on the brain. It’s a plastic organ.”

At any rate, the study is good news for people who play video games a lot. Perhaps your brain won't turn to mush from staring at the computer or TV screen all day, but it also goes without saying that getting outdoors every so often, like your mom told you when you were 10, wouldn't hurt you either.

Source: Gong D, He H, Liu D, Ma W, Dong L, Luo C. Enhanced functional connectivity and increased gray matter volume of insula related to action video game playing. Scientific Reports. 2015.