Study Suggests Video Game Benefits Could Come At A Neurological Cost

20/05/2015 17:01 | Updated 20 May 2015

A study has claimed that people who play action video games could be at a higher risk of developing a neurological or psychiatric disorder.

Carried out by Prof Greg West from the University of Montreal’s department of psychology, the study has been published in the Royal Society and finds that people who regularly play games like Call of Duty, Destiny and Halo all employ navigational strategies which are based on pre-learning rather than adaptive exploration.

call of duty screenshote

Call of Duty: Advanced Warfare was one of the biggest-selling games of 2014

The difference between the two is large enough that you're actually using a completely separate part of the brain.

Looking at a sample size of 59 healthy young adults, the researchers had split the group between those classed as action video gamers and non-action video gamers.

Employing a series of maze-like tests, the researchers found that the action video game players were making decisions using the responsive part of the brain while those that hadn't played many action games were using the spatial process.

The differences are significant: A spatial response uses relationship building between landmarks in the environment, so analysing the landscape around you and then reacting. A responsive reaction recalls pre-learnt actions such as left, right, up and then employs them.


Destiny is now a billion dollar franchise for its publisher Activision

What they eventually found was that while it's true that action video game players do have increased peripheral responsiveness and can react faster, they use less of the 'creative' processes that would normally be involved, instead opting for shortcuts that use previously learnt solutions.

In its conclusions, the study explains why this could be a problem saying:

"This possibility needs further research as reduced grey matter in the hippocampus has been associated with an increased risk for numerous neurological and psychiatric disorders across the lifespan such as schizophrenia, post-traumatic stress disorder, depression and Alzheimer's disease, and cognitive deficits in normal ageing and non-hippocampus-dependent response strategies are associated with addiction."

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At this point it's important to note a number of key limitations to the research, as admitted by the team themselves.

For starters, they used a very small control group, 59 is not a large group when you have a video game playing population that counts in the hundreds of millions.

Secondly, the research doesn't take into account that some action games require more puzzle-based learning, or indeed the differences between first person action games and third person action games.

"It should be noted that this same relationship was not observed for ego-shooting and third-person shooting games, highlighting the need for more research on the effects of specific types of video games on the brain."

"The entorhinal cortex was also found to positively correlate with time playing logic and puzzle games."


Finally -- and this one's a biggie -- the study acknowledged that no actual research had been done to assess if most action video gamers weren't just naturally capable of using the response process before they even started playing video games.

"It is possible that our current results could reflect a self-selection effect, where actionVGPs in our sample were predisposed to action video game playing owing to higher pre-existing levels of grey matter in striatum. In fact, Erickson et al. found that grey matter in the striatum at baseline predicted the level of video game skill acquired by their participants. "

Adding another word of caution is Tim Parry from Alzheimer’s Research UK who told the Guardian:

“The risk factors for Alzheimer’s and other causes of dementia are varied and complex, but this study does not add Call of Duty or Grand Theft Auto to that list. This study focussed on a specific navigation task in young adults and did not look long term at memory and thinking skills, so we cannot draw any conclusions about video games and dementia risk.”

So while it appears clear that video games will increase your ability to react and respond, the negative effects are only just starting to be understood. This is before you even take into account the research which starts looking at the psychological effects of violence in video games.

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