Call of Duty probably isn’t rotting your brain, unless that’s literally all you do. Thanks for clicking! See you folks tomorrow.
No, but seriously, NPR recently published a piece on a fascinating study examining not just how video games can affect the human brain, but how different kinds of video games can have different effects. While a single study isn’t enough for a wide conclusion or any sort of action, it presents results that, when you think about them, make logical sense. Do they suggest games like Call of Duty will mess up your brain? Not likely. But it does suggest that, like any other activity, moderation, variety and safety are healthy considerations to make. Yes, even with video games.
Here’s the breakdown of what the research was all about: The University of Montreal conducted the study, which was eventually published in the publication Molecular Psychiatry if you want to check it out. The study started as a more thorough examination into “video game treatment.” Essentially, that’s when a doctor prescribes a person, perhaps suffering from something like Parkinson’s, PTSD, depression, or others mentioned in the study, with video games. The idea is that playing video games can stimulate brain activity, a kickstart if you will that may help along the path for a more broad treatment.
The study hypothesized that, perhaps, playing different genres of video games could have different individual results in terms of brain activity, and simply prescribing “Video Games” to a person might not be good enough. So the team from the University of Montreal gathered a sample size of about 100 people, gave them some initial tests to figure out their learning style (spatial vs responsive) then had them play roughly 90 hours of action games such as Call of Duty, Borderlands 2 and Killzone. The patients then played 90 minutes of 3D platformers, specifically various Super Mario games.
Before we get to the results, you’ll need to consider two parts of the brain. First, the striatum, which in a simplified sense is involved with the brain’s “autopilot” systems. This is what tells us to do important, menial things like eat, sleep, drive familiar paths like to work, and so on and so forth. Next, the hippocampus is a part that operates spatial memory and episodic memory, or ability to orient ourselves and recall the past. When the hippocampus is healthy it has a higher mass of grey matter, and that’s an overall plus for the brain.
The problem is, when the striatum is leaned on too much, the hippocampus can start to atrophy, and lose some of that precious grey matter. As the hippocampus loses its ability to function, the brain comes more and more at risk of illnesses like depression, schizophrenia, Alzheimer’s and PTSD. So of course after the study was conducted, the researchers found that while the 3D platforming games stimulated the hippocampus, playing the action games caused the patients to use the striatum much more, causing an imbalance and shrinkage in the hippocampus. Much of this was attributed to many of these action games having functions like GPS or other easy navigational tools, meaning players had to process far less when it came to navigating these virtual spaces.
Of course, 90 hours of chasing waypoints in Borderlands 2 isn’t going to give anyone brain damage. However, this is a cause of concern for a patient unwittingly using Borderlands 2 to try and treat a brain issue. It’s also a good reason for people to make sure they have balance in their lives, to go ahead and enjoy the shooters but also find time for other engaging activities to make sure they’re taking care of themselves. So basically, you know, regular health awareness type stuff. Also, playing Mario games is totally good for your brain. Cool, right? Regardless, this was a super intriguing study to dive into and read about. I hope we all learned something new together!