Video games may change your brain in the short term. But is that a bad thing? Photo by Flickr user matt.ohara.
In the never-ending quest to prove violent video games are bad, researchers at the Department of Radiology and Imaging Sciences at Indiana University School of Medicine in Indianapolis had a group of young men play a week of violent video games, studying their brains before and afterward. After a week of gaming, the players’ brains were changed. While some are hailing this as proof that violent games are harmful, it doesn’t look quite that simple.
So, here’s what happened: 22 non-gamer men, ages 18 to 29, underwent brain scans. Eleven of them played violent video games for a week, then took a one-week break. The other 11 didn’t play any games for the two-week period. The gamers were scanned after the first week, and again after the second week. In the first post-gaming scan, two portions of their brains were less active: the left inferior frontal lobe (specifically during “an emotional task”), and the anterior cingulate cortex (during “a counting task”). In the second scan, these changes had faded somewhat.
I see a number of problems with this study. For starters, you could make anyone pick up a new task and they’d have brain changes, whether the task was playing soccer or learning Italian. That’s how brains work.
But what about those specific parts of the brain? I can’t find much on the “left inferior frontal lobe,” but according to one Wikipedia article, “People with left inferior frontal lobe damage produced less facial expression and could not analyze emotional situations as well as those with right frontal lobe damage, especially with fear and disgust.” Meanwhile, the anterior cingulate cortex “appears to play a role in a wide variety of autonomic functions, such as regulating blood pressure and heart rate, as well as rational cognitive functions, such as reward anticipation, decision-making, empathy and emotion.”
“These brain regions are important for controlling emotion and aggressive behavior,” said researcher Yang Wang.
Hmm. So these guys had a brief period of less response in areas of the brain related to recognizing facial expressions and emotional situations, and related to rewards, decision-making, and emotion. Does this mean they were less emotionally apt? Or does it mean they were more emotionally apt, triggering less of a response in areas of the brain that already had the situations down pat? What I’m saying is, how do we know these changes were a bad thing? The researchers don’t really say how they would play out in a real-life situation, or whether they’re a problem.
My second issue with the study is that it’s very, very small. You can’t extrapolate the experience of 11 men to the experiences of millions of gamers of different ages and genders. A much larger study would be interesting to see.
Another problem is that they didn’t study whether nonviolent video games also caused these same, or other, changes in the brain. Many people agree that gamers — kids, especially — seem a bit out of it, even surly, after a gaming session. But they don’t think it’s violent video games particularly causing this effect. It could be the immersive nature of the games, or it could be something else, such as competitiveness, at work.
On the plus side, this study did manage to study the players’ brains both before and after, suggesting that the gaming was the cause of the changes. Other studies in which gamers’ brains were scanned haven’t done that.
In conclusion, Wang said, “These findings indicate that violent video game play has a long-term effect on brain functioning.” Given the very short-term nature of this study, and given that the effects had already diminished significantly at the one-week mark, I don’t think you can call the effect “long-term” at all.