America is in the midst of one of the slowest economic recoveries in its history, but that has not stopped the video game industry from exploding in recent years. According to the Entertainment Software Association, the industry generated more than $22 billion in revenues in 2014 and is growing at a pace more than four times as fast as the broader U.S. economy. Much of this revenue is driven by adolescents (12 to 17 years of age), 97 percent of whom play video games according to a recent ABC News article. Strikingly, more than half of adolescents report playing video games on an almost daily basis. I must admit that I was no exception to this trend. I played for at least a couple of hours a day when I fell into that age category and I likely would have played more had my mom not feared that my brain would rot. Perhaps out of pure spite I rejected the notion that gaming could be at all harmful to the mind and continued to play as often as I was allowed. I still contend that parents in fear of rotting brains need not worry, and in this post I will explore my hypothesis that playing video games actually improves cognitive functions and perhaps even grows the brain in a physical and measurable way.
Note: In this blog I will not seek to discuss the social and moral implications of the content that many of today’s popular games possess. The consequences of video game violence, drug references, sexual innuendos, etc. is a fiercely debated question that has yet to be fully answered and will not be considered in this post.
In the course of my research, I found studies that show benefits that go beyond enhancing quick decision making and hand eye coordination. In this experiment, researchers were able to establish that playing video games with strategic elements leeds to improved strategic thinking and enhanced brain power. The experimental design was simple yet enlightening: researchers split 72 test subjects into three groups. The control group played a game called The Sims, one that requires no strategic thinking. The two experimental groups played a game called StarCraft, a real-time science fiction strategy game. One group played the game on a higher difficulty that required more complex strategic solutions to problems presented in the game. Potential confounding variables were considered by researches by taking the following measures: All of the groups had roughly the same median age and prior experience with video games. All participants were undergraduate female students. All three groups had roughly the same median score on benchmark tests of strategic thinking prior to the experiment. Each group played 40 hours of their game over a six week span. The results were measured by using a complex battery of cognitive tests to determine if the groups playing StarCraft saw an increase in brain function when compared to the Sims group. The tests showed that not only did the StarCraft groups perform better, but the benefits derived from playing seem to be proportional to the complexity of the game. In other words, the group playing the more advanced version of StarCraft saw even more cognitive gains that the group playing the less complicated version. These results support the claim that video games can help to improve strategic decision making. The researchers were unable, however, to establish a firm physiological mechanism to explain their results (and to confirm my hypothesis), so I continued to research to try to find a causal link between video games and brain power…
To support my claim that video games directly improve the brain and its functions (and to explain the findings in the last study), I sought evidence to demonstrate that video games have a profound impact on the anatomical structure of the brain itself and I encountered a recent 2013 experiment that did just that. This experiment was conducted by the Max Planck Institute for Human Development. Scientists there used magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) to measure any volumetric increases that might have occurred in the brains of people who played Super Mario 64 daily for 30 minutes over a two month span. They also monitored the brains of a control group whose participants did not play video games for the two month period. They concluded that playing the video game sparked neurogenesis (the creation of new neurons in the brain) and an overall increase in grey matter (where nerve cells are located). Growth was detected in many important regions of the brain including the right hippocampus, right prefrontal cortex and the cerebellum. According to the Mayfield Clinic, these structures are critical for such functions as hand-eye coordination, short-term memory, strategic thinking, and other cognitive functions. The researchers also noted that the ability to train specific parts of the brain with video games can have very valuable therapeutic applications that should be researched more in depth.
Based on my research, I conclude that playing video games is likely to improve many aspects of cognitive function by training the brain in a way that results in measurable volumetric increases in brain matter. I warn, however, that at present there is a lack of data to show the long-term effects of frequent video game play. It is unknown whether the initial benefits will erode quickly when one stops playing or if they will continue to benefit the player well beyond that. Despite this, I conclude with confidence that playing video games is a fun way to do your brain some good.