One of my concerns was the impact that violent video games might have on his brain. Maybe it is irrational, but I worry about things like that. (I can’t help it – I’m a mom! I worry about concussions in hockey and soccer, too.) I felt like I had read somewhere about the negative impacts of gaming, but couldn’t call up any facts.
I knew that there was a longstanding body of research on the negative impact that watching violence has on kids. For example:
Dr. Wayne Warburton said … that years of study across the world showed definite links between time spent watching dramatized violence and the likelihood of aggressive behavior in the young. “There are some key impacts of violent media on children that are very well demonstrated in research,” Warburton said. “They include increases in the likelihood of aggressive behavior, increases in desensitization to violence and an increase in the overall view that the world is more scary and hostile than it really is.” (Read more here.)
So it seemed likely that there would be some evidence that playing violent games would also have a negative impact. Right?
A quick and very unscientific Google search turned up several articles, one with the promising title Violent Games DO Alter Your Brain- and the effect is visible in MRIs in just one week.
The study took in 22 young men, and used magnetic-resonance scanning, as well as verbal psychological tests and counting tasks. One control group played a violent shoot ’em up for 10 hours during one week, then refrained afterwards. The other group did not play any games in either week. After one week, the ‘gamers’ showed less activity in certain regions of the brain when they were scanned. (Read more here.)
According to Science Daily, the parts of the brain affected were the frontal brain regions important for controlling emotion and aggressive behavior. “These findings indicate that violent video game play has a long-term effect on brain functioning, Dr. Wang said. “These effects may translate into behavioral changes over longer periods of game play.” (Read more here.)
Sevrin read the articles that I sent him. Then he did his own research, looking for data showing that playing violent video games can impact the brain positively. It turns out that some recent studies have actually shown an increase in creativity and in performing multiple tasks simultaneously. He sent me the following articles on the benefits of playing violent video games.
From Science Daily: “After playing the shooter game, the changes in electrical activity were consistent with brain processes that enhance visual attention and suppress distracting information,” said Sijing Wu, a PhD student in Spence’s lab in U of T’s Department of Psychology and lead author of the study.
“Studies in different labs, including here at the University of Toronto, have shown that action videogames can improve selective visual attention, such as the ability to quickly detect and identify a target in a cluttered background,” said Spence. “But nobody has previously demonstrated that there are differences in brain activity which are a direct result of playing the videogame.”
From Bloomberg (covering a report published in Current Biology): “Playing action video games primes the brain to make quick decisions and could be incorporated into training programs for surgeons or soldiers, a study found.”
The researchers tested 18- to 25-year-olds who weren’t regular video-game players. One group spent 50 hours playing the “The Sims 2,” a slow-paced strategy game published by Electronic Arts Inc. The other group took on “Call of Duty 2,” a combat game sold by Activision Blizzard Inc., or “Unreal Tournament,” a shooter game developed by Epic Games. The subjects then performed timed computer tasks, according to the report published today in the journal Current Biology.In the problem-solving exercise, the action-game players made decisions 25 percent faster than the strategy group, while answering the same number of questions correctly.
The findings suggest that games simulating stressful events or battles could be a training tool for speeding reactions in real-world situations, according to researchers at the University of Rochester in New York led by Daphne Bavelier, a cognitive scientist.“It’s not the case that the action game players are trigger-happy and less accurate: They are just as accurate and also faster,” Bavelier said in a statement. “Action game players make more correct decisions per unit time. If you are a surgeon or you are in the middle of a battlefield, that can make all the difference.”
The experiment builds on previous research by Bavelier showing that video-game players surveying a scene gather more- detailed visual information than non-gamers. The brain constantly uses sensory information to calculate probabilities. Action gamers collect visual and auditory data more efficiently than non-gamers, arriving at decisions faster, the authors said. As a result, playing fast-paced video games may improve everyday skills such as driving, tracking friends in a crowd and reading small print, the scientists concluded.
Sevrin and I debated a bit about the relevancy of the studies (the small size of the negative brain function study, the 18+ ages of all of the study participants). But I think we both agreed that these were all interesting theories. Not necessarily inconsistent, either. It does makes sense to me that violent video game play could increase rapid decision-making skills, but still have a negative impact on other brain functions.
Even though we did not go deep into the research, it gave us a lot to think and talk about. In the end, it seems that there is still a lot that we have to learn about the impact – both positive and negative – of violent video games on the brain of young teenagers. In a sense, there is a giant, realtime experiment going on right now with millions of young participants – and no clear answers.
POSTSCRIPT: Since I wrote this, several friends and family members have sent me additional articles and websites about research into the impact of violent video games on young people. If you know of more, let me know and I’ll add them!
Grand Theft Childhood (thanks B!)
The contested field of violent video games: Research roundup
Ways for parents to ease tussle with teens over tech use by Julie Weed (thanks Julie!)
The CALL OF (Parental) DUTY series:
Part II “Freedom to Game is Important” – my son shares his point of view
More to come!
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