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Thought Piece: Your Brain on Games

By Hillary McDaniels

The negative effects of avid video game usage have been under scrutiny for years. However, new research shows playing video games can affect our brains in positive ways. A study at the University of Rochester in New York asserts that violent games, which have often been a source of concern for many parents, have the strongest beneficial effects on the brain.

“There has been a lot of attention wasted in figuring out whether these things turn us into killing machines,” said computational analyst Joshua Lewis at the University of California in San Diego. “Not enough attention has been paid to the unique and interesting features that video games have outside of the violence.”

Gaming provides a creative outlet for developing minds and sharpens users perception and decision-making skills. According to research, people who played action-based video games made decisions 25% faster than others without sacrificing accuracy. In fact, the most apt gamers can make and act upon decisions four times faster than the average person.

Image courtesy of the Wall Street Journal

“These are not the games you would think are mind-enhancing,” said cognitive neuroscientist Daphne Bavelier. Bavelier studies the effects of action games at Switzerland’s University of Geneva and the University of Rochester in New York.

Video games require an intense amount of concentration, which heightens the surges of neurotransmitters, like dopamine and adrenaline. The continuous surges strengthen the neural circuits of the brain; similarly to the way exercise strengthens muscle. University of Rochester researchers found that practiced gamers can pay attention to more than six things at once without getting confused. This is compared to the four things that the average person can focus on at any one moment.

“Video games change your brain,” said University of Wisconsin psychologist C. Shawn Green. Green studies how electronic games affect abilities. “Games definitely hit the reward system in a way that not all activities do.”

There are numerous activities that change your brain: learning to read, playing the piano, or navigating a map. These all have shown to change the brain’s physical structure.

A three-year study by Michigan State University’s Children and Technology Project included 491 middle school students at 20 different Michigan schools. The study found that the more a child played computer games, the higher their scores were on creative sections of standardized tests. This was true regardless of race, gender, or the type of game played. “Much to my surprise, it didn’t matter whether you were playing aggressive games or sports games,” said psychologist Linda Jackson, who led the study. In contrast, research showed that using cellphones, computers, or the Internet for purposes other than gaming had no effect on creativity scores.

In the largest public study of electronic gaming to date, Mark Blair at Simon Fraser University in Vancouver, British Columbia, is analyzing the behavior of 150,000 people who play StarCraft II. He is pulling together more than 1.5 billion data points of attention, movement, perception, and second-by-second decision-making skills.

By analyzing the enormous amount of diverse data, he hopes to learn how people become experts in an online-gaming world. This research may shed light on how new skills, knowledge, and experience can become second nature and an intuitive process.