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Could action games be hurting your brain?

A recent study by scholars at the University of Montreal has concluded that certain video games could be more harmful to the brain than previously thought. It’s a scary thought, and part of a debate many thought long put to rest after a number of studies demonstrated that gaming could have a positive effect on the brain, improving things like depression and hand eye coordination.

Before we dive into the details, remember that this study isn’t the begin-all-end-all that it may appear, and it certainly doesn’t confirm that video games permanently rot your brain or otherwise turn you into the mindless zombie. From a positive perspective, studies like this could analyze and identify the cause of problems and make for the development of "healthier" brains in the future. 

Mental Gymnastics

The study, which was published recently in Molecular Psychiatry by a team from the Department of Psychology at the University of Montreal, examines the effect of certain video games on the hippocampus and the caudate nucleus portions of the brain. We won’t bore you with all the nitty gritty details (and we aren't exactly experts here ourselves), but, essentially, for some people that are categorized as "response learners," the study shows that playing action video games engages the caudate nucleus rather than the hippocampus, which eventually causes the hippocampus to shrink as it atrophies from lack of use.

The testing involved 100 students aged 18-30 who were selected via a questionnaire that evaluated their drug and alcohol use, mental health, and video game habits. The only students selected were those that were evaluated as healthy, sober, non-gamers. These students reported that they had played less than an hour of video games a week for the last six months, and also reported that they had never habitually played video games in their lifetime.

Each student initially underwent a pre-test MRI scan to establish a baseline for the status of their hippocampus and caudate nucleus, and then went through a basic set of tests that evaluated the methods they used to navigate through a maze.

These tests served to establish if they were spatial learners who used their hippocampus to navigate the maze, which usually meant relying on various landmarks to make progress, or if they were response learners who used their caudate nucleus and alternative methods to navigate through the same maze, memorizing patterns of left and right turns. 

With this established, they split the subjects into two equal groups of mixed response and spatial learners and had them each play 90 hours of a single genre. One group played through the campaign of action games like Call of Duty, Battlefield, Killzone, and various other action FPS titles, while the other group played 3D platformers like Super Mario 64 as a control to contrast the results.

Once the subjects had completed their 90 hours of gameplay they were given a post-test MRI, and the researchers compared the pre-test and post-test scans. With both scans in hand, researchers found that the subjects who played 90 hours of action games who were also specifically response learners (the subjects who already naturally use the caudate nucleus to navigate in a game) suffered a statistically significant loss in the mass of their hippocampus. In contrast, subjects that played 3D platformers saw a statistically significant increase in the size of the hippocampus for both types of learners.

Why does it matter?

These findings are interesting primarily because of the link between a small hippocampus and certain mental health disorders like depression, PTSD, Alzheimer’s, and schizophrenia, which means that this study could be the first to provide a link between playing certain video games and these disorders.

Of course it’s important to note that this is only the first study demonstrating this, and science doesn't work on the basis of single isolated studies. We still don’t know for sure why certain video games affect response learners this way, and it’s also hypothesized based off of the control group that these effects are not permanent, and could be potentially reversed by playing more 3D platformers that encourage response leaners to navigate using their hippocampus.

The researchers believe that the next step in their research is identifying what in these titles actually causes response learners to suffer this loss in grey matter compared to spatial learners.

Currently, the running hypothesis is that GPS guidance systems and various wayfinding systems in these action games cause response learners to relax and follow the directions fed to them as they make an efficient, straight-line path to their objective, while spatial learners naturally create a mental path using various landmarks along the way, thereby engaging their hippocampus and reducing the chance that it will lose mass.

The researchers orchestrating the study have suggested that, in order to reduce the possibility of this loss in mass, game development should focus on allowing gamers to find and navigate on their own, rather than using a baked-in GPS system as part of the HUD.

Why the focus on action games? 

Although the study is focused on observing the effect of action video games on the hippocampus, it's worth mentioning that they really don’t highlight any of the traits that really make an action game an action game. Shooting, fast-twitch reflexes, and violence aren't the focus here. Instead, the study seems targeted entirely on the way response and spatial learners navigate through each environment, and it's unclear what role, if any, the "action" portion of the games really plays. 

Based on the methods prescribed in the study itself, they’re more concerned with the difference between FPS titles that guide you along a linear path and games that utilize 3D platforming as the primary game mechanic.

As a result, we don’t really have a clue where games that combine action and platforming in one degree or another might fit into this study as a whole. What about games like Prey or Dishonored that give the player a single objective marker but then leave navigating the incredibly complex levels up to the player? With hundreds of possible routes hidden throughout the game that can only be uncovered through creative thinking, exploration, and 3D platforming, it seems unlikely that these titles would have the same negative effect as the action games used in the study. 

It’s entirely possible that the effects could be skewed by playstyle in this case – players that choose high chaos runs in Dishonored, for example, would find a quick and easy path to their objective based off their specific skill level and ability to rip apart obstacles in their path. Meanwhile, stealthy and more thought-out approaches that force the player to dynamically observe and navigate the environment without being spotted seem like exactly the kind of gameplay that would encourage growth of the hippocampus.

Of course, both games lack a hand-holding GPS system, but they do mark your objective and allow you to navigate to it similar to what you might see in games like Borderlands and many of the other FPS titles utilized in the study.

There are a lot of unanswered questions raised by this study, but at the very least it's a fascinating beginning. Hopefully we’ll see the researchers behind this study begin to explore the concept in greater detail in the coming years.

What are your thoughts on the study? And how exactly were these researchers able to find so many young people who don't play video games? Join the discussion in the comments below.