Training Your “GoldenEye”: The Impact of Video Games on Brain Activity

There’s an ongoing (mostly unsubstantiated) idea that violent video games lead to increased violence in children and adults. There’s no solid, empirical evidence backing up these claims, just circumstantial correlations here and there. Indeed, the purported cases of video games causing increased violence could just as easily be turned around to argue that individuals with dispositions of a certain sort might be more drawn to violent games. And, in either case, the “evidence” does not hold true for all gamers (or even a majority).

And so, while uptight matrons battle pasty-skinned nerds over the moral implications of violent entertainment, few have bothered to really study any other impact of video game play on the brain. We gamers boast that the rapid button clicking and finite joystick control give us superior hand-eye coordination, but is that rooted in scientific fact?

Turns out, a recent study out of the University of Toronto has found a solid link between playing first person shooters and enhanced activity in certain areas of the brain.

A team led by psychology professor Ian Spence had 25 test subjects (individuals who did not play video games) attempt to detect a target object among a sea of distractions in a wide visual field while their brain waves were recorded. Of these 25, 16 went on to play an unidentified FPS for ten total hours (in one or two hour sessions), while the control group of nine played some casual puzzle game for the same amount of time.

After their ten hours were over, all subjects once again performed the visual attention task while their brain waves were recorded.

The results?

Subjects who played the FPS performed far better on their second visual attention task, and their brain waves also displayed significant changes. The control subjects, on the other hand, showed no significant changes in visual attention or brain waves.

“After playing the shooter game, the changes in electrical activity were consistent with brain processes that enhance visual attention and suppress distracting information,” said Sijing Wu, one of Spence’s PhD students.

This is the first solid demonstration that playing video games (even for a mere ten hours) can actually change brain activity. And visual attention, the focus of this particular experiment, is important in one’s day-to-day life, from driving a car to avoiding obstacles when walking through a cluttered or crowded room.

Seems video games do impact the lives of the players, though not through the flipping of a violence switch in their brains.

Obviously, this research requires further study. It will be interesting to see how other types of video games (not just FPSs) impact the brain. Would a sword-and-shield game generate similar activity to a shooter? And what about RTSs? How long does it take the increased visual attention activity to slide back to how it was before, and does regular gaming maintain and/or solidify these changes within the brain? And is there a cap to how much FPS gaming can impact these areas of the brain, or does increased difficulty/variety of games allow one to increase this activity level still further? Does brain activity change between single player gaming and the often more complex task of multiplayer interactions?

Questions, questions. One thing’s for certain: I look forward to seeing us delve deeper into the neuroplastic changes gaming brings about.

…I also volunteer as a test subject.

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