Researchers debate gaming’s effects on the brain

The cross-sectional study carried out by a large collaboration of researchers from European and Canadian universities, funded by the European Community’s Sixth Framework program, the U.K. Department of Health, and a Medical Research Centre program grant, used a magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) scanner to compare the brain structure of 14-year-olds who were categorized as frequent or infrequent gamers.

The researchers say that the larger volume and activity in the left ventral striatum is in line with the theory that the reward system from this region of the brain in frequent gamers may be similar to that at work in excessive gamblers. They also point out that it is not clear whether the differences in the size of the area of the brain result from frequent gaming or whether they were already present and make a person more likely to become a frequent gamer.

The study was published in the peer-reviewed science journal Translational Psychiatry.

Douglas Gentile, an Iowa State University associate professor of psychology, cites examples of both positive and negative effects from playing video games in an article he coauthored in the December issue of Nature Reviews/Neuroscience.

In the “Brains on video games” article, six experts shed light on the current understanding of the positive and negative ways in which playing video games can affect cognition and behavior. It explains how that knowledge can be harnessed for educational and rehabilitative purposes.

Gentile said the article shows that it’s not simply a “black and white” issue when it comes to how video games affect the brain.

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“Six researchers from four different research groups all wrote perspectives for this article — all independent of each other, but focusing on a wide range of issues,” said Gentile, who runs the Media Research Lab at Iowa State. “What is most valuable is that it cites research that video games can contribute to real problems, but also can have some real benefits.”

Beneficial effects of video games

In the article, Gentile cites research demonstrating that video games can have beneficial effects. One study by University of Rochester, N.Y., researchers Daphne Bavelier and C. Shawn Green on the first-person shooter game “Unreal Tournament” found that players improved perceptual and attention skills by playing that game.

Although fewer studies have examined the positive effects of video gaming on social behavior, Gentile collaborated on experimental studies in the U.S., Japan, and Singapore, which found that playing pro-social games led to more subsequent “helping” behavior in users. In one longitudinal study, the researchers found that children who played more pro-social games early in the school year demonstrated increased helpful behaviors later in the school year.

“If content is chosen wisely, video games can actually enhance some skills,” Gentile said. “But overall, the research has demonstrated that they’re far more powerful teaching tools than we imagined. But the power can be both good and bad.”

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