Playing video games for extended periods of time can be fun and a great way to pass time, but the guilt you feel afterwards at having ‘wasted’ hours can be quite unsettling. Parents have forever waged war on their children for spending too much time behind a computer screen and too little behind a book.
But this is perhaps going to change in the next decade or so, as studies now show that video games are not a total waste of time. In fact, they can have a range of positive effects on the human brain, such as increasing the volume of grey matter (thus increasing its size) and the number of neural connections within the brain. This results in improved cognitive control, spatial resolution of vision, hand-eye motor coordination, contrast sensitivity, and emotional regulation.
How does gaming help brain development?
The idea of real sports (Soccer, hockey etc.) being better than video games is a very common conception, and it holds true in many cases. However, the effects of video games are only now beginning to be fully understood. And while sports help with physical fitness, and motor and hand-eye coordination skills, video games have a much more profound effect on the human brain.
Games help children develop logical, literary and social skills. The more concentration an individual plays video games with, the stronger their neural connections develop in those particular areas. For example, if you’re playing a shooting game for extended periods of time, you’re essentially practicing your motor skills, hand-eye coordination and reflexes. If you’re playing a puzzle game, you’re engaging the area of the brain that is responsible for logic, reasoning and arithmetic skills.
The more you use a specific part of the brain, the more ‘work’ it has to do and the more neural connections it forms to get that work done. This can help increase the amount of grey matter in that area, ultimately increasing in size and contributing towards intelligence or cognitive skills.
Video games are also helpful in improving basic visual processes, especially improve visual contrast sensitivity. They enhance an individual’s ability to focus and be more vigilant, leading to the development of better job-related skills.
The hypothesis that video gaming helps develop cognitive abilities is not new. Scientists have been researching the subject for many years. Researchers at University of California, San Francisco, published a paper in the Nature journal back in 2013, in which they describe how they created a specialized video game to help older people boost mental skills such as multi-tasking.
Another research paper published in the American Journal of Play (Fall 2014) by researchers Adam Eichenbaum, Daphne Bavelier and C. Shawn Green, suggests that video games assist in various mental processes. These include perception, attention, memory and decision making. Psychologists consider these processes to be the basic building blocks of intelligence, and they come from games requiring players to move around rapidly, keep track of objects (such as enemies), keep a storyline in mind and make quick decisions.
A much more thorough study on this topic was published by Australian and Chinese researchers from University of Electronic Science and Technology of China and Macquarie University in Sydney. Their study shed light on how playing video games regularly helped increase the amount of grey matter in the brain. Grey matter is responsible for muscle control and sensory perception skills such as seeing and hearing; memory function; and emotion, speech, decision formation and so on. Grey matter also promotes better connectivity in certain sub-regions of the human brain.
The researchers used functional MRI (fMRI) scans to analyze the brains of 27 individuals who became experts at playing action video games and who won regional championships for popular games such as league of Legends and DOTA 2. These 27 individuals’ fMRIs were compared against brain activity scans of people who are just casual gamers and don’t play action games. The fMRI scans focused primarily on the insular cortex region which is responsible for higher cognitive functions such as language processing, empathy and compassion, focusing and attention to a task, motor controls, hand-eye coordination, gastric motility and speech.
Comparison of these scans showed that the expert gamers had heightened connectivity between certain subregions in the insular cortex with increased thickness, surface area and volume of grey matter.
Authors of the study explain this phenomenon:
"By comparing AVG experts and amateurs, we found that AVG experts had enhanced functional connectivity and grey matter volume in insular subregions. Furthermore, AVG experts exhibited increased functional connectivity between the attentional and sensorimotor networks, and the experience-related enhancement was predominantly evident in the left insula, an understudied brain area. Thus, AVG playing may enhance functional integration of insular subregions and the pertinent networks therein."
Preliminary researches already suggest that playing video games habitually can actively increase a person’s grey matter volume and neural connectivity within subregions of the brain. A lot more research is going on, and it should hopefully point towards the same conclusion.
Be sure to play video games!
The next time your parents get on your case for playing too many games, let them have a look at some of the studies mentioned above. But let this not be an excuse to play games 24/7 – there has to be a reasonable balance.
If you are a parent, you need to encourage your kids to spend an hour or so each day playing video games, as their effect on the development of a human brain can be profound, especially so in the case of kids/teenagers when the brain is most receptive to learning. And if your kid doesn't already have a laptop, check out one of the best gaming laptop in Singapore over here.
Besides major gaming titles such as Call of Duty, there are many smaller games that can have an equally desirable effect on the brain. Some good examples are http://iospace.games that can stimulate your brain in a matter of seconds! IO Games are online web-based games that are puzzle or adventure in nature, and can get you addicted in no time. Have fun!