06.26.2021 07:00 AM
What Gaming Does to Your Brain—and How You Might Benefit
Here are some ways to think about addiction, improved neurological function, and your overall relationship with video games on a better, more intuitive level.
Illustration: James Heimer
To stay away from Azeroth—which is to remain unsubscribed from Blizzard Entertainment’s enduring MMORPG, World of Warcraft—is no simple task. In fact, the gaming community has long (and only half-jokingly) referred to the orc- and elf-filled game as “World of Warcrack.”
As somebody who, over the past 14 years, has racked up more than 600 days played, the pull of WoW’s constant new dungeons, raids, and battlegrounds is something I can attest to. When I’m at a loose end, the first thing that comes to mind is logging on my level-60 rogue. And if I don’t play for an extended period of time, I’ll, quite literally, see WoW in my dreams. On a conscious and subconscious level, I can’t quite escape.
Video game “addiction,” though, isn’t solely relegated to WoW; it’s cross-genre and cross-platform. Neither is addiction the only neurological and psychological side effect of video games. So how, scientifically, do video games—from MMORPGs to shooters and RPGs—affect our brains? And despite the drawbacks, can the brain benefit from video games?
Addiction and Our Mushy, Fun-Loving Brains
When the subject of how video games affect us crops up, the first thing that comes to mind is video game addiction—a field that’s being increasingly studied by psychologists and neuroscientists alike and is often played up for headlines more than it is an actual mental health threat on its face. “Roughly speaking, there are no big differences between video game addiction and other addictions,” says Marc Palaus, who holds a PhD in cognitive neuroscience from the Open University of Catalonia. “One key aspect to understand how addictions work is the reward system of the brain. The reward system mediates how pleasant stimuli (such as the presence of food, water, social interaction, sexual contact, or video games in this case) act as positive reinforcers for behavior.” Once our brains have been exposed to something pleasurable, we often want (and then set out to get) more—and video games are certainly no exception.
Considering WoW’s longevity and impressive following (at the time of writing, there are around 5 million monthly players), it’s no surprise that DIY support communities have surfaced. /r/nowow, a subreddit of over 1,000 members, functions as a safe space where struggling WoW addicts can discuss broken relationships, wasted time, hindered education, and relapses.
It’s a place I’ve personally found reassuring and frightening in equal measure—the highly engaging and enjoyable world-away-from-our-own-world, with its daily and weekly quests and never-ending updates, has sucked many a gamer in.
Lee Chambers, an environmental psychologist I spoke to, is someone whose story is similar to those posting on /r/nowow. “I found World of Warcraft in my second year of university, and sadly at a time when I was struggling with my mental health,” he said. “The game gave me the social connection I needed, but I became dependent on it as my mental health became worse, and I became embroiled in the game and avoided life, leading to me being taken home by my parents after isolating myself for weeks.” Thankfully, Chambers has since come out the other side.
Fortnite, the King of Quick Dopamine Hits
The high-octane environments of shooters are a world apart from the slower-paced grind of an MMORPG like WoW, Final Fantasy XIV, and Elder Scrolls Online. And it’s Epic Games’ Fortnite, the candy-hued survival shooter, that’s particularly interesting when it comes to video games and the brain, not least because it’s become a cultural phenomenon, especially among young gamers whose brains are still developing.
At its core, Fortnite is a quick-fire and inherently repeatable game, with co-op, battle royale, and sandbox modes catering to different play styles. (Fortnite Battle Royale matches last about 20 minutes, but players can be eliminated shortly after games begin, depending on their skill level and/or luck.) The thrill of staying alive in pressured, digital life-or-death scenarios, in addition to obtaining pop-culture-referencing skins and post-ironic dances, can release dopamine—one of the brain’s neurotransmitters. And after a match in Fortnite, the more dopamine that your brain releases and the more pleasure you feel, the greater your desire to play another round.
Fortnite’s ability to keep gamers playing—not addicted, but certainly glued to the screen for extended periods—is well documented. In 2018, a year after the game’s official release, a 9-year-old girl in the UK was taken to rehab after deliberately wetting herself in order to keep playing—it became an international news story. A year later, in 2019, a Montreal-based legal firm sought to launch a class-action lawsuit against Epic Games; the firm argued that Epic had intentionally designed the game to be addictive. Prince Harry—as in the royal who’s sixth in line to the British throne—proclaimed, during a media event, “That game shouldn't be allowed.”
Despite the bad press, Fortnite, and games like it, have proven brain-related benefits. First- and third-person shooters improve spatial reasoning, decisionmaking, and, contrary to popular belief, attention. In an article published by Men’s Health, writer Yo Zushi said that “even the heart-racing pressure you feel as your mate hunts you down in Fortnite Battle Royale turns out to be good for you: ‘Positive stress’ in the context of gameplay helps to motivate you while increasing your ability to focus IRL.”
It’s Not All Doom (and Gloom)
Neurological and psychological research on video games is in its infancy—it’s in its early alpha stage, if you will. That’s because video games, as we know them, are modern inventions. And when assessing the research so far, studies show that it isn’t all warnings and worries. In fact, video games can be effective tools for upgrading our brains and our cognitive skill sets—especially in the long run.
Video game research truly kicked off in the late ’90s, with Daphne Bavelier and C. Shawn Green leading the charge while at the University of Rochester. They began to explore the unconventional idea that video games could impact and perhaps even aid with neuroplasticity—a biological process where the brain changes and adapts when exposed to new experiences.
After years of research, they found that action games in particular—games where reflexes, reaction time, and hand-eye coordination are challenged, like in the now-retro classics Doom and Team Fortress Classic—provided tangible cognitive advantages that help us in everyday life. As Bavelier and Green noted in the July 2016 issue of Scientific American: “Individuals who regularly play action games demonstrate improved ability to focus on visual details, useful for reading fine print in a legal document or on a prescription bottle. They also display heightened sensitivity to visual contrast, important when driving in thick fog … The multitasking required to switch back and forth between reading a menu and holding a conversation with a dinner partner also comes more easily.”
In Bavelier’s TEDxCHUV talk “Your Brain on Video Games,” she makes the case that playing action games like Call of Duty in reasonable doses is positively powerful. Instead of parents perceiving their kids’ virtual zombie and designated “bad” guy shooting as brainless, it should instead be viewed as brain-boosting, she claims.
Others, too, have touted the brain-related benefits of video games. For instance, researchers at UC Irvine found that 3D games can improve the functioning of the hippocampus, which is the part of the brain that’s involved with learning and memory. Meanwhile, researchers from Queen Mary University of London and University College London found that video games can aid mental agility and enhance strategic thinking. This correlates with what James Mitchell, a UX designer and avid gamer, told me when I asked how he thought video games have impacted him: “I definitely think that my critical thinking and strategy has improved, and I find it easier to predict certain movements, especially relating to other games, and even card games. I have also learned to be more unpredictable with my movements.”
Get the Brain Boosts Without the Drawbacks
Despite video game research being a recent phenomenon, it’s proven that video games do provide out-and-out brain gains—good news for those of us partial to a video game (or two, or three, or 400). They can, however, have the potential to suck us in to a degree that isn’t healthy, which could potentially manifest as video game addiction.
So what can be done so our brains benefit from +3 agility and +3 intelligence without suffering from –5 stamina? How can a healthy relationship with video games be sustained? As C. Shawn Green—who, along with earning a PhD in brain and cognitive studies, worked as a game developer on the Doom series—said to WIRED: “What healthy gameplay might look like in practice may differ greatly across individuals, and across the lifespan (e.g., in children versus adults). In other words, there really aren’t any one-size-fits-all guidelines for healthy gameplay that will work for everyone-is-a-different-size human beings.” Generally speaking, though, it’s important to be aware of how gaming may impact other areas of our lives in the short and long term, Green says. “It’s a matter of thinking through the proximal and downstream consequences,” he said.
Granted, the fact that games are specifically designed to keep us playing makes following this advice harder. But by remaining cognizant of our own (and our families’) gaming habits, making sure to log off sometimes to do other things, and by ultimately playing video games in a way that doesn’t unrestrictedly keep us on the hedonic treadmill, there’s potential to leverage gaming to be mentally more resilient, quicker, and smarter IRL.
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