The research has been mixed on whether video games are good or bad for the brain.
Three recent studies produced results about video games and their effect on the gray matter in the brain that may start to answer this question.
This new research suggests that certain types of games affect people differently depending on their learning style. The research found that people’s navigation strategy had a big impact on the effect of the game on the hippocampus, in some cases leading to a significant reduction in gray matter.
The Importance of the Hippocampus
The hippocampus is a vital structure in the brain. It is important for learning and plays a role in transitioning new information to specific areas of the cortex. The hippocampus also plays a role in the development of new brain cells.
These studies distinguished between two different types of navigation strategies. Response learners memorize a sequence’s left and right turns. Spatial learners rely on various landmarks to orient and navigate through a game.
The first study looked at the effect of action games on the hippocampus. Action games are often promoted as improving visual attention skills. In the first study, the group was divided between individuals who played action video games at least six hours per week and those who played less or not at all.
An interesting side-note: all the study participants were right-handed.
MRI’s were completed to compare the brain structure of the participants. Those who played action games were found to have significant reductions in left hippocampai gray matter compared with the non-video game players.
The Impact of Game Types and Navigation Strategies
The second study looked at non-video game players and the effect action games or 3-D platform games had on the brain. The study included a pre-study MRI and a post-study MRI for all participants. The participants were also categorized depending on their navigation strategy.
The participants who played the platform-game had increases in the gray matter in the hippocampal memory system independent of learning style.
Where the study gets interesting is with those using the action video games. Significant differences were observed when learning styles were considered in further dividing the groups. Response learners were found to have significant reduction in the levels of gray matter in the right hippocampus. Spatial learners were found to have significant increases in gray matter in the left hippocampus.
The Effect of Role-Playing or Action Games
The third study using a video game that used an in-game Global Positioning System which relied heavily on response learning navigation strategies. The full group showed significant gray matter reductions in both the left and right hippocampus.
However, when the group was further split into response learners and spatial learners, the difference was even more marked. The group that were response learners were found to have a ‘bilateral decrease’ in gray matter in both the left and the right hippocampus. In contrast, the spatial learners had increased gray matter in both areas.
To Play or Not to Play?
The investigators in these three studies believe this is the first time that both the positive and negative impact of action video games on the brain has been demonstrated. They suggest that different learning styles may have an impact on whether or not video games have a positive or negative impact on a user’s brain.
So, what does this mean for the aging brain?
As we age, our brain’s increase the use of response learning strategies. Thus, the negative effects of action video games should become more pronounced on aging brains then on younger adult brains.
If you are using action video games to improve attention or short-term memory performance, this research suggests it would be counter-productive in an older brain.
Since the hippocampus is so important for memory and learning, older users of video games should exercise caution. And if you just love video-gaming, choose strategy games over action games.
Nicole has trained hundreds of professional and family caregivers who have touched the lives of thousands of individuals living with a cognitive impairment. Nicole also holds a law degree from Osgoode Hall Law School, a Master’s in Law from Queen’s University specializing in Negotiations and is a Certified Professional Consultant on Aging.