Under the Hood

How Playing Video Games Affects The Brain

You may remember the controversy that erupted back in June when the World Health Organization recognized gaming disorder as a mental health condition. While some experts supported the classification, others expressed skepticism

It may be surprising to those who cannot see video games as anything beyond a harmless hobby. Over the years, researchers have examined the effects of gaming, trying to figure out when it may cross the line from passion to addiction. In other words, how do we find out who is at risk?

For one, gender might be a factor to consider — Dr. Yawen Sun, a diagnostic radiologist at Ren Ji Hospital in Shanghai, notes the role of impulse control, which is needed to resist temptation.

"Men have shown lower levels of impulse control in comparison with women, and their impulse control also increases more gradually," she said, adding "young men may tend to experiment with pathological Internet use" more than their female counterparts.

However, Sun acknowledges that causality is unclear i.e. whether vulnerable brains end up becoming addicted or if gaming itself could induce these changes in the brain. One study from California State University made a case for the latter when they examined how video games and social media lit up the brain reward system in children.

While all of us experience this activation, younger age groups are a lot more sensitive. This practice, if left uncontrolled, might cause changes in the brain that make them prone to other addictions later in life, the findings suggested.

Other psychologists, such as Dr. Michael Fraser from New York, believe high school students who suffer from anxiety, depression, and learning disorders are at high risk. This is why some experts tend to classify excessive gaming as a coping mechanism for underlying mental health struggles, not a disorder by itself.

Many have also defended video games against the claim that they encourage violent behavior. This year, German researchers conducted an experiment and found no link between violent video games and long-term aggression, suggesting the influence is so small that it might as well be meaningless. But this debate has not shown any signs of wrapping up.

On the other end, experts highlight that video games can also have positive effects on the brain. Based on the literature, you only need to worry about negative effects when prone to excessive gaming, according to Mark Griffiths, professor of gambling studies at Nottingham Trent University, England.

"There is little evidence of serious acute adverse effects on health from moderate play," he wrote.

For example, games like Angry Birds, in moderation, can promote relaxation, improve mood and reduce anxiety. Shooter, adventure, and strategy-based games can help improve reaction time, spatial awareness, memory, reasoning and other skills. Of course, games can also provide an interesting medium for teachers and students to use in the learning process.

Recently, a study revealed how the game "Crystals of Kaydor," can help children become more empathetic. The research team from the University of Wisconsin-Madison also hoped to explore whether the game could help those on the autism spectrum.