The Effect of Video Games on the Brain

The effect of video games on the brain is a research area gaining popularity as the percentage of children and adults who play video games is on the rise. Some people believe violence in video games and in other media promotes violent behavior among viewers. While there is not sufficient data to validate this claim, there are a number of studies showing that video games can increase aggressive behavior and emotional outbursts, and decrease inhibitions. From a few of these studies, and from my own observations of children playing video games, it is quite obvious that the video games do have at least some effect on the behavior of the player. The extent and long range consequences of these behavior changes after one has turned off the video game are not so easily deduced. One source states that “While research on video games and aggressive behavior must be considered preliminary, it may be reasonably inferred from the more than 1,000 reports and studies on television violence that video game violence may also contribute to aggressive behavior and desensitization to violence” (1). Another study reports that “Hostility was increased both in subjects playing a highly aggressive video game and those playing a mildly aggressive video game. Subjects who had played the high-aggression game were significantly more anxious than other subjects” (2).

I had a chance to observe the effects of video games first hand on two boys, ages eight and ten, when I babysat them earlier in the semester. They were playing the video game “Mario Cart,” which is really not a very violent game; the object is to win a car race by coming in first while maneuvering through different courses. When the younger brother won, the older brother got up and started kicking him and yelling insults! Later on that day, the younger brother was playing another video game by himself and when he could not beat the level, he threw down the controller and screamed at the t.v. screen, “Why are you doing this to me…?!” and burst into tears. I was very shocked by this reaction and was not quite sure how to handle the situation. This game had brought an eight year old boy to tears, right in front of me. “Certainly, video games can make some people go nuts. You just have to look at some enthusiasts playing video games on their cellular phones, mumbling to themselves heatedly even though others are around them. At game centers (penny arcades), frustrated people punch or kick game machines without regard to making a spectacle of themselves” (3). From the above descriptions, it seems that players get somewhat “sucked” into the video game and become oblivious to their surroundings and much less inhibited to share their emotions. What types of changes are occurring in the brain to activate this behavior which one exhibits when “sucked” into a video game?

Akio Mori, a professor at Tokyo’s Nihon University, conducted a recent study observing the effects of video games on brain activity. He divided 260 people into three groups: those who rarely played video games, those who played between 1 and 3 hours three to four times a week, and those who played 2 to 7 hours each day. He then monitored “the beta waves that indicate liveliness and degree of tension in the prefrontal region of the brain, and alpha waves, which often appear when the brain is resting” (4). The results showed a higher decrease of beta waves the more one played video games. “Beta wave activity in people in the [highest amount of video game playing] was constantly near zero, even when they weren’t playing, showing that they hardly used the prefrontal regions of their brains. Many of the people in this group told researchers that they got angry easily, couldn’t concentrate, and had trouble associating with friends” (4). This suggests two important points. One, that the decrease of beta wave activity and usage of the prefrontal region of the brain may correlate with the aggressive behavior, and two, that the decrease of beta waves continued after the video game was turned off, implying a lasting effect. Another study found similar results and reported: “Youths who are heavy gamers can end up with ‘video-game brain,’ in which key parts of the frontal region of their brain become chronically underused, altering moods” (5). This study also asserts that a lack of use of the frontal brain, contributed by video games, can change moods and could account for aggressive and reclusive behavior. An important question arises: if the brain is so impacted by video games as to create behavioral changes, must that mean that the brain perceives the games as real?

Perhaps looking at what effects video games have on autonomic nerves can begin to answer that question. “‘Many video games stir up tension and a feeling of fear, and there is a very real concern that this could have a long-term effect on the autonomic nerves,’ Mori commented” (6). Autonomic nerves are those connected with involuntary internal organ processes, such as breathing and heart rate. “Heart rate can be altered by electrical signals from emotional centers in the brain or by signals from the chemical messengers called epinephrine (adrenaline) and norepinephrine. These hormones are released from the adrenal glands in response to danger…” (7). Multiple studies have reported that playing video games can significantly increase heart rate, blood pressure, and oxygen consumption. If studies show that heart rate is increased when playing video games, then it seems that the brain is responding to the video game as if the body is in real danger. Does repeated exposure to this “false” sense of danger have an effect on what the brain then perceives as real danger?

From the above studies and observations, video games do effect the players in some ways, since it appears that players get so wrapped up in the game that they forget their surroundings and begin to see the game as a real quest. Studies have shown that playing video games can increase heart rate and blood pressure, as well as decrease prefrontal lobe activity while the person is playing the game. This could account for changes in the player’s mood and cause him or her to become more aggressive or emotional. However, the extent of these effects on the body once video game playing has ceased are preliminary and need to be confirmed.

 

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