The Science on Whether Video Games Rot Your Brain

July 24th 2015

Good news if you're a gamer. Contrary to what your parents might have told you, video games will not rot your brain. Quite the opposite, in fact, as researchers at Radboud University in the Netherlands determined. Their study, published by the American Psychological Association last year, found that playing video games—yes, even the violent ones—can help young gamers develop learning, health, and social skills.

The APA task force looked at an extensive body of research on the subject over past decades, and though they acknowledged that there's some evidence to support motherly claims of brain rot from game play, they also found that concerns over the potential negative effects of gaming are overstated. This comes as welcomed news for American adolescents, 97 percent of whom report playing video games for one hour each day, according to the Pew Research Center.

"Important research has already been conducted for decades on the negative effects of gaming, including addiction, depression, and aggression, and we are certainly not suggesting that this should be ignored," said Dr. Isabel Granic, the lead author of the study. "However, to understand the impact of video games on children's and adolescents' development, a more balanced perspective is needed."

In terms of cognitive benefits, research has shown that playing video games can improve attention, memory, and spacial skills. A 2013 meta-analysis noted that people who played first-person shooters learned to think about objects in three dimensions at the same capacity as students who took academic courses designed to help them hone that skill. "This has critical implications for education and career development, as previous research has established the power of spatial skills for achievement in science, technology, engineering, and mathematics," Granic said.

And while it may seem counterintuitive, exclusively nonviolent, prosocial content in games is not the only way to inspire positive behavior. "[C]ompelling work is just emerging that seems to refute this simple interpretation, suggesting that violent games are just as likely to promote prosocial behavior," the study found.

Think about World of Warcraft or Minecraft—two distinct and exceptionally popular games, with millions of players who log hours upon hours every day—and consider how they function on a psychological level. For the former, multiplayer gaming lends to highly interactive social communities; for the latter, spacial reasoning and problem-solving skills are emphasized.

One of the main differences between video games of today and yesterday (i.e. the Super Nintendo Entertainment System era) is the diversity of both gaming platforms and media content. Games today are more diverse, complex, dynamic, and socially-driven; and those same developments have gradually transferred over to today's gamers.

Mark Griffiths, the director of the International Gaming Research Unit at Nottingham Trent University, wrote that the appeal of video games has crossed "many demographic boundaries" as the industry has progressed. Gamers come in many shapes and sizes; all ages, genders, and ethnic backgrounds seem to enjoy the experience. "They can be used to help set goals and rehearse working toward them, provide feedback, reinforcement, self-esteem, and maintain a record of behavioral change."

That is, anyone and everyone stands to gain from game play—in moderation, of course. The therapeutic and educational value of gaming has been increasingly established by researchers and health professionals alike, and as stigmas against gamers continue to fall apart, new studies are sure to follow up on the apparent benefits of game play.

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