Could Brain Damage Accompany Action Video Games?

Society’s relationship with video games is understandably tense. Some proponents cite the cognitive benefits of video games while detractors make strong arguments. A new study in the journal Molecular Psychiatry found that action video games can reduce grey matter in regions of the brain (specifically the hippocampus).

This could have consequences for the gaming industry, which predicts that 63% of U.S. households have at least one video game player. Given that these findings could impact millions of individuals, it will be interesting to see how people continue monitoring video game usage.

Action Games and the Brain

According to the study by Dr. Gregory West at the Universite de Montreal, action video games are the real culprit. 51 males and 46 females played either Call of Duty 3 or Super Mario and then scanned regions of the participants’ brain.

The results were quite stunning: after 90 hours of dedicated gaming, the action video gamers suffered from atrophy in their hippocampus (i.e: decreased grey matter) whereas the Super Mario gamers increased the volume of grey matter. How could action games be so much worse?

Dr. West believes action games reinforce “response learning”. This type of learning may help increase visual attention, but it comes at a cost. Response learning is associated with not only decreased grey matter, but also Alzheimer’s disease, depression, and PTSD.

In action video games, the user is rewarded by relying on habit and procedural memory, which underutilizes “active learning capacities” in the hippocampus. In essence, action video games help us improve one region of the brain to the detriment of another.

Video Game Trade-Offs

This may not be the end of action video games, however. Dr. West believes it is possible these findings could alter the way video games are designed. Something as simple as removing in-game GPS displays could avoid the problem altogether.

Beyond simply re-structuring the game, it’s possible for gamers to play various different types of games so as to avoid tipping the balance in any one direction. After all, some patients struggling with Parkinson’s disease without dementia benefit from action video game training. It’s hard to determine whether a video game is “good” or “bad”, but balancing the type of game and the number of hours spent should be a good place to start.

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