Shocking study makes teen gamers gamble, finds that their brains similar to gamblers’!

Ghent University researchers studied teen gamers’ brains — and compared them to gamblers’. Photo by Flickr user eyeSPIVE.

In dozens of studies, scientists have speculated about what’s going on in kids’ brains when they are playing video games. Numerous studies have attempted to give us this information, but with no solid results. Recently, researchers at Ghent University in Belgium took a direct approach: they rounded up 154 14-year-olds who play video games, and put them in an MRI machine to check things out.

What they found was interesting: teens who play plenty of video games have an enlarged portion of their brain associated with rewards. This portion, called the ventral striatum, is also often larger in gamblers and others who engage in compulsive behavior.

Of course, we don’t know for sure whether playing video games enlarges this part of the brain, or whether people whose brains are more developed in this area tend to gravitate toward gaming. To find that out, you’d have to take a bunch of non-gamers, make them play video games for years, and see if that portion of their brain got bigger. And it’s hard to get permission from parents to subject kids to potentially brain-altering activities. In a scientific context, anyway.

You would think that during such a study, the scientists would put kids in the MRI machine while they were playing video games to track, you know, how their brains looked.

They didn’t. They had the kids play two games in which they made bets on certain outcomes. In other words, they made them gamble.

So they started with the idea that video gaming might be somehow related to addiction or compulsive behavior, similar to gambling. They picked a bunch of kids who play video games, made them gamble, and — lo and behold — found that their brains were like gamblers’ brains!

Anyone else see the problem here?

Then you get headlines like:

“Children who love video games have brains like gamblers.”

“Study: Video games may change brain”

At least the LA Times didn’t join in the hysteria: “Frequent gamers have brain differences, study finds.” There, was that so hard?

What are parents to think, reading these headlines? They probably picture their kids pulling the lever on a slot machine or doubling down at the poker table, losing everything they have. But there are so many other studies suggesting the benefits of video games — and then there are the numerous stories from players themselves. Do gamblers talk endlessly about how gambling saved their lives? Some might. But it seems unfair to compare the two pastimes, even if there are a few similarities there. It’s certainly unfair to study gamers’ brains — but make them gamble while you do it.

Until we study their brains while they are playing video games, we aren’t getting anywhere.


6 responses to “Shocking study makes teen gamers gamble, finds that their brains similar to gamblers’!

  1. Bad reporting about good science. :-/ Unfortunately all too common… Here’s a useful article about it:

    Essentially the study was looking for whether there was a bigger “reward centre” in brains of kids that already play more video games, and found that that was true, by dividing the population into half based on how much time they spent playing video games.

    The specific test used to find the reward centre in the MRI isn’t the relevant factor – the important thing is that it was the same relatively simple test for all, whether they played video games or not. If you made them all play video games, you’d get quite different brain reward results based on whether the kids were good at those video games or not.

    They also are planning to have this be a longitudinal study, so they’ll be following up into the future.

    • Thanks for that link. You’re right, that is a good explanation of the study.

      I don’t agree that the specific test used to find the reward center isn’t relevant. I get that it’s not as crucial to their findings as the size of the reward center in gamers vs. non-gamers (or less frequent gamers), but I still think it’s problematic to test this reward center by using an activity that’s so similar to something negative — gambling — that video games are often compared to, in terms of addictiveness. To some extent you can say it’s not the fault of the researchers if the public picks up on the gaming == gambling angle, but they could have predicted that interpretation and found another method of testing that wouldn’t cause people to misinterpret their findings.

      Not that I’ve ever found a study on this topic that WASN’T misinterpreted. 😦

      • *nod* There’s study to be had in doing scans of people playing video games, that’s for sure. I’m not sure what has and hasn’t been done in that space. 🙂

        The issue with finding something to test the reward centre with is that I think it’s hard to find “innocuous” activities that activate the brain’s reward centre. A simple betting problem is probably: a) well documented to actually activate the reward centre, b) actually one of the least controversial things that does. Food, sex, drugs, rock ‘n’ roll… I’m not sure you’d get away with ethics committee approval for actively supplying those to teenagers. 🙂

        The communication around the science by scientists is often poor – that’s actually the raison d’être for the creation of The Conversation…

        I highly recommend taking a look at them generally. 🙂

  2. Well, being “in love” looks a heck of a lot like addiction, and risk/reward impacts the risk/reward part of the brain, which is, well, impacted by things that impact risk/reward. It’s kind of hard to find a biological part that can’t be associated with something negative. It would perhaps be easier, if they chose, for the reporters to also note that the risk/reward portions of the brains are ALSO enlarged in not just gambling addicts but rich stock traders, entrepreneurs, and probably the dudes that took out Bin Laden. Biology is mostly full of tools and spectrums, and we humans can frame those tools positively OR negatively.

  3. Right — I wish they’d chosen something neutral, or more positive, to compare gaming to. Or at least included other things that spike the reward system besides compulsive gambling.

  4. Pingback: Scientists show violent video games change brains, but what does it mean for gamers? | Backward Messages

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