Six Ways Video Games Affect the Brain
By Pendred Noyce
Should parents worry about video games affecting their children’s brains? The average American 11-14 year old spends ten hours a week playing video games. Boys play about twice as much as girls. What does all this screen time do to our children, especially our sons? Here’s what we’re beginning to know, good and bad:
1. Sharpening perception. People who play video games improve the ability to notice events and objects at the edge of the screen, not just the center. They also develop their ability to distinguish subtle differences in shading. Seeing well at the periphery could be useful on the soccer field, in heavy traffic, or on the battlefield. The ability to distinguish shades of gray might be helpful to an artist, designer, or photographer. Otherwise, this heightened perception doesn’t feel very important.
2. Seeing 3-D objects in 2-D. Video gamers are more adept than non-gamers at mentally manipulating 2-D representations of 3-D objects. That is, they can figure out what they’ll see when they turn a corner, or how a building or village might look from the top. But do these skills develop as a result of playing games, or do people with good 3D visualization skills play more because they have a competitive advantage? We don’t know.
3. Boosting intelligence. Most intriguing of all, there’s some evidence that video or computer-based memory training can increase intelligence. Games that require the player to hold several images or bits of information in mind at once may build the holding power of short-term memory. This matters because it makes thinking easier. If you’re drawing analogies, looking for patterns, analyzing a reading passage, or doing mental arithmetic, you need to remember what you had in mind an instant earlier. The better your short-term memory — the less effort you have to spend to hold thoughts in mind — the more fluid and efficient your reasoning will be.
4. Sagging grades. This point might seem to contradict the one above, but most games aren’t set up to make kids think hard. They’re pure entertainment, and we know that long hours spent gaming are associated with lower school performance. The reason seems simple enough. Time spent crouched in front of the screen is time not spent doing homework, reading, or talking with adults.
5. Getting weighed down. Heavy gamers tend to be heavy children. Are overweight, unathletic kids drawn to the excitement of video games, where they can be heroic daredevils without budging more than their thumbs? Or does sedentary entertainment lure active kids into a couch potato lifestyle where they stop burning off the calories? We don’t know for sure, but sitting in front of the screen, snacking and waving a controller, is no way to keep fit.
Game creators have responded to this concern by developing movement-associated games, such as Nintendo Wii. In a country where 70% of us have a totally sedentary lifestyle, the American Heart Association has praised these games. But can swinging an imaginary tennis racket truly substitute for playing on a real team, learning to ski cross country, climbing a tree, or going on a nature hike?
6. Turning into Mr. Hyde. Of greatest concern to researchers and parents alike is the fear that violent games may lead to violent behavior. This fear is well founded. Playing video games in which one character willfully hurts another can lead in a period of weeks to more acts of aggression among young players. Players are more likely to start hitting, kicking, and biting.
Why the personality change? Brain scans show that while reacting to a violent game scenario on screen, both decision-making and emotional centers in the brain light up. But among frequent gamers, the brightness in the emotional centers quickly fades. Apparently, frequent gamers develop the ability to suppress an emotional reaction to violence. They’re desensitized.
In the midst of this accumulating evidence, what’s a parent to do? First, parents should strictly limit violent games, especially among younger (pre-teen) children. Any evidence of increased aggressive behavior should make a parent shut off the games entirely, not as punishment but as treatment for a negative effect on their children’s brains. Beyond minimizing violence, the most important considerations are variety and dose. Kids who play video games should include movement-based games that keep them physically active, along with interactive games that ask them to cooperate with others and think hard. Parents and kids can join together in games that require movement and mental effort.
Most of all, parents should not let video games crowd out other activities, such as reading, sports and outdoor play, doodling, jamming in the basement with friends, or daydreaming. While video games carry some potential benefits, all of us benefit from more time with nature, books, friends, and the company of our own imagination.
(Pendred Noyce is the author of “Lost in Lexicon: An Adventure in Words and Numbers.” You can find out more at www.lostinlexicon.com)