It appears the jury is in, gaming does affect the brain in gamers. They have improved visuospatial skills, memory, attention and, it turns out, show signs of other brain change associated with some addictive disorders.
Whilst games tend to get bad press whenever something anti-social happens amongst "youths", it appears games are not the culprit. In fact, gaming, on the whole, can have some real-life benefits.
Obviously, like anything in life, they should be played responsibly and in moderation. You do need to get out of the house from time to time.
What skills can video games improve?
Video games have been shown to improve and develop, some real-life beneficial skills for players. Some of them are obvious, but others are quite surprising.
Obvious improvements are things like hand-eye coordination and problem-solving skills. More esoteric examples include, believe it or not, benefits to long-term player's attention and learning a language.
Video games can also train players to be more personally accountable. In-game accomplishments tend to trigger dopamine release in the brain which rewards the player for their 'hard' work.
This reward cycle can teach players about perseverance and personal accountability.
To any parent with children who play games often, this might sound counterintuitive, or even completely false. But children who have been diagnosed with ADHD, for example, can sit and concentrate on playing computer games for a long time.
Games also enable players to develop skills in building friendships and support networks. This is especially powerful for children who might have trouble doing the same in 'the real world'.
The real benefit of games isn't playing them per se, but the community they build around the shared experience.
Another important skill that appears to be reinforced by gaming is reading. A 2013 study showed that regular gamers had reading speeds and accuracy far above the expected level for their age.
And these are just a select few of the many benefits of gaming.
But don't video games cause violent tendencies in players?
Video games have been both demonized and praised in the media over the years. They tend to be one of the first things blamed for any acts of teenage violence, for example.
But these kinds of accusations don't seem to hold up to rigid scientific examination.
James Gee, an education professor at the University of Wisconsin, Madison says this is kind of accusation is not helpful for finding the underlying issue:
"You get a group of teenage boys who shoot up a school—of course they've played video games," Gee says. "Everyone does. It's like blaming food because we have obese people."
Many studies into the link between violence and computer games have shown little if any link between the two. In fact, video games tend to be shown to be completely innocent.
Far from being the culprit for anti-social behavior, video games have tangible and provable benefits to long term players. These kinds of studies all support the notion that computer games could be used as a powerful tool in the future of teaching and learning.
It might not be a cure-all for keeping pupil attention, but they should be seriously considered as a teaching aid.
Playing video games actually changes your brain
A recent review of existing scientific literature on video games and their effects on players revealed some interesting results. It showed that most research appears to show that video games do actually alter the brain and boosts their efficiency in certain aspects.
But this does come at a cost. It also appears that playing games might fuel addictive tendencies. There is no such thing as a free lunch after all.
Most of the reviewed studies were attempting to find a connection between whether games do make changes to the brain or not. If they did, were the changes, if any, good or bad for the gamers?
The literature reviewed combined various scientific and humanities subjects from neuroscience to sociology.
The study was a collaboration between the Cognitive NeuroLab, Faculty of Health Sciences, Universitat Oberta de Catalunya, Barcelona and the Laboratory for Neuropsychiatry and Neuromodulation, Massachusetts General Hospital in Boston.
All team members were interested in how a common form of entertainment impacts upon our brains and behavior whilst maintaining a scientific approach to their methodology and any preconceived assumptions they might have.
"Games have sometimes been praised or demonized, often without real data backing up those claims. Moreover, gaming is a popular activity, so everyone seems to have strong opinions on the topic." said lead researcher Dr. Marc Palaus.
The study consisted of 116 scientific studies. Of them, 22 or so focused on the structural changes to the brain whilst the remaining considered changes in brain functionality and/or behavior (some of the studies looked at both aspects).
What scientific evidence is there for video games effects on the brain?
From the literature review above, some interesting findings were made. First of all, playing video games does indeed appear to affect a player's attention.
Gamers, on the whole, show marked improvements on non-gamers in areas like sustained attention or selective attention. The parts of the brain responsible for these activities have been shown to be more efficient and require less activation to do so.
Another finding was that playing computer games can actually increase the size and efficiency of brain regions responsible for visuospatial skills. Sited in the hippocampus, the area in question was markedly more developed and larger.
The hippocampus is also responsible for regulating emotions, and long-term memory.
The final, and perhaps most worrying part of the study, relates to addictive tendencies. This is in part due to the influence of neural reward feedback when playing games.
Scientific research incorporated in the review showed a clear demonstration of functional and structural changes to the brain responsible for this normal brain activity.
The observed neural changes are similar to those seen in other addictive disorders.
It is hoped that the findings of the review can now be used to consider the complexities and both the positive (visual and motor skills) and negative aspects (risk of addiction) of gaming.