This is your brain on video games

Too hot, too cold, or just right?
Too hot, too cold, or just right?
Image: Reuters/Kai Pfaffenbach
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Having you ever found yourself groggy and disoriented after a long session of gaming, as if coming out of a deep trance? Where was I? you ask yourself, slowly regaining your senses.

Given the immense power that games have to alter our consciousness, it’s natural to wonder what long-term effects they might have on our brains.

According to the Entertainment Software Association, 60% of Americans play video games daily, and this number is only going to increase in the future. What effect might this persistent engagement have on our cognitive faculties?

There are plenty of scientific studies about this topic. The results are generally positive, sometimes negative. Most of the results concern functional aspects of the brain: perception, memory, peripheral vision, and reaction time.

But instead of looking at the precise, low-level mechanical details of what we think, we should look at the big, messy, emergent features of how we think: concepts and communication, our habits and norms, and our models of the world and how we apply them. As these features are deeply social, we need to consider not just how video games will change our brains, but how these changes will affect society overall.

There are three distinct ways of looking at this question.

The optimist

The first approach emphasizes the miraculous positive power of gaming. According to this view, games make us smarter, happier, improve our mood, elevate our energy level, protect us from psychological damage, help us recover from neurological trauma, facilitate social coordination, and allow us to combine imagination, emotion, and analytical reason.

“What if we started to live our real lives like gamers, lead our real businesses and communities like game designers, and think about solving real-world problems like computer and video game theorists?” asks game designer and futurist Jane McGonigal.

According to McGonigal, the best thing we could do is play more games and play more of the right kinds of games: games that encourage creative thinking, collaborative problem-solving, and joyful positivity. These types of games help us train our brains to see the world as a series of challenges that can be overcome by working together; McGonigal even designed a game to help herself recover from a debilitating head injury.

The pessimist

But not everybody is quite so sanguine about the positive benefits of gameplay on our brains. Philip Zimbardo, the psychologist behind the famous Stanford Prison Experiment, has a recent book in which he sees videogames, along with porn, as being a major contributing factor in a crisis facing young men in America.

Both Zimbardo and McGonigal are looking at the same fMRI scans and drawing different conclusions. Both see increased stimulation of the brain areas associated with motivation, goals, and rewards. But where McGonigal sees this as a way for players to become less depressed, better connected, and more resilient, Zimbardo focuses on the lack of real-world context for this activity. According to him, “The net result is that playing video games gives boys the reward associated with achieving a great objective, but without any connection to the real world.”

Zimbardo admits that some data has shown that video games can improve our fluid intelligence, which is our capacity to learn new information and solve problems in novel situations. However, he sees games overall as a key ingredient in the worst kind of toxic masculinity: players, mostly men, who are socially isolated and emotionally stunted, de-sensitized by constant, repetitive, context-free hyper-stimulation.

The artist

Game designer and author Eric Zimmerman represents a third perspective. His response is to suggest that the question of if games are good or bad for our brains is somewhat inappropriate.

When we think about novels or paintings, our primary way of understanding them is not to measure their effect on our brains; there is an obvious and profound value to these things that doesn’t reduce to some utilitarian benefit. After all, we don’t need to turn to neuroscience to justify our relationship to art by claiming it improves our cognitive abilities. That’s because the beauty and meaning of art is an end in itself, not a means to some other practical goal.

The same is true for games.

Zimmerman also makes bold claims about how games have the power to shape our way of seeing and understanding the world. In his Manifesto for a Ludic Century he says, “Gaming literacy can address our problems. The problems the world faces today require the kinds of thinking that gaming literacy engenders. How does the price of gas in California affect the politics of the Middle East affect the Amazon ecosystem?”

The synthesis of games and brains

Even if you agree with Zimmerman that games—just like painting, music, and literature—have an intrinsic value that is irreducible to some instrumental purpose, the nature of that value remains a fascinating question. Like these other artforms, games change how we perceive the world, how we react with it, and how we understand it.

First of all, games are goal-directed. Whenever we play a game, we take on a mental stance of actively attempting to achieve particular outcomes. In this way, games are as much like learning to play an instrument as they are like listening to music, with all the cognitive benefits that implies.

Secondly, games are complex webs of cause and effect. Games train the brain to see the hidden logic that determines the surface features of the world. With stories, our brains are presented with a single series of events, one path through the web. In games, our brains explore the web itself, tugging at different strands to understand how they connect.

Finally, games are surprising. Games are designed to produce situations we didn’t expect and problems whose solutions are non-obvious. The real world confronts us with problems like this all the time: scenarios with difficult trade-offs, unintended consequences, and unpredictable outcomes. Games give our brains miniature playgrounds within which to safely explore the dangerous complexity of the real world.

By embracing the positive ambitions of the optimist, acknowledging the warnings of the pessimist, and exploring the intrinsic beauty of games with the cultivated taste of the artist, we can build a fully-dimensional picture of how games are changing our brains, and what this means for the future of humanity.