Neurologists are taking a stance on gaming, and it isn’t pretty.
A recent article in Neurology Now tied a few studies together which claim video games adversely affect developing brains. Most of the studies mentioned were designed to evaluate games as a problem, but despite the bias there are some interesting points raised. We’re left with the overall medical opinion that games are something to keep track of as a parent.
One of the first studies is the most shocking: of Chinese college students tested, the ones who were playing a ton of World of Warcraft had less gray matter in their brains than their peers. Gray matter is the part of the brain which is thinking, and the more gray matter you’ve got, the more intricate your processing can become.
World of Warcraft is full of happy clicks and sounds that keep players coming back. The Diablo series, also developed by Blizzard, is also designed around these design ideas. From this perspective, game addiction is easy to understand. The core loop of these games ensures that you are never left without goals to meet. More importantly, these games are designed in part by psychologists who can inform what kind of gameplay retains players day after day. In fact, games such as WoW and Diablo are very similar in structure to casino games.
Meeting goals repeatedly in games floods your brain with dopamine, a neurotransmitter which makes you feel really good. Drugs and sex have the same sort of effect, and the floods that powerful experiences create make your brain change. It’ll be more likely to come back to a behavior which creates a huge effect. Your brain will connect the action of playing to that feeling, making it a highway to good times. It makes leveling up a more pleasing prospect than doing work and getting an unknown amount of satisfaction for it later.
Children aren’t allowed to play slot machines, so why are they allowed to play video games?
In addition to studies, the article also mentions some anecdotal evidence with a profile of Anthony “Sevrin” Rosner, a recovered World of Warcraft addict.
Real life, Rosner indicates, can seem inane to one who is succeeding in games all day. While skills picked up from gaming can be applied to real life, will we apply them for our gain?
Or, more often, will we go through the motions in order to get back to our next video game fix? Anybody who will call their experience with games in the past an addiction will surely empathize with the latter.
This is a struggle those with ADHD face. If you’re compelled to process large amounts of information at a time, then games are a satisfying sensory diet. The article puts it this way: how do you tell a child who has found a game that stimulates them sufficiently to go back into a world which is slower and requires dedicated focus on single topics? For ADHD sufferers, games are a therapeutic respite from a demanding world. They move at their pace.
As wonderful as it is to say gaming is breaking ground, the industry still exists as a moneymaking vehicle, persisting on addictive models of gameplay. We still praise games like Diablo 3, which are the experiences that led Rosner to his addiction. We prioritize the fun of those games over their addicting nature, because a fun game is basically a “good” game in almost any game critic’s book. The connection between play and enjoyment is unbreakable.
Recently in the field of communications, another study addressed how violent games where a player’s avatar is black helped perpetuate racist stereotypes of black people being more aggressive. This study got attention from all sorts of gaming outlets because it was a direct affront to those who believed a diversity in games is a powerful tool for positive change.
Should we internalize criticism of games from the medical field?
There was debate, but the topic was dropped. I don’t believe game designers or the press really internalized the article, instead dismissing it as those deeply committed are wont to do. They want to call some games bad and some games good on their terms, not based on the terms of academics who are removed from their conversations. That said, Kotaku has a great write-up on gaming studies related to violence here. It’s a little outdated, but it does pit two rival researchers against each other if you want to grasp the conversation.
Neurology is headier than communications, though. If you want to read the research mentioned in the Neurology Now article, be prepared to have a Wikipedia tab open, or more optimally, a textbook. This kind of obfuscation is debilitating for someone who wants to understand the debate free of perspective, but that’s just science. It’s hardcore and requires a lot of knowledge. For now, all one can do is assume the scientists know what they’re doing and take their work at face value. It’s a hard pill to swallow for fans of gaming, especially in this case, but hopefully the truth will prevail if these academics are worthy of their titles. In the meantime, listening won’t hurt.