If you have ever experienced playing action shooters like Call of Duty or Battlefield, you’re aware that the faster and more accurate you are, the better you do. You have milliseconds to process and react to your opponent. In real-time action strategy games such as StarCraft or League of Legends where players face head-on, swift decisions based off immediate information you receive will decide the victor and loser. Fast and efficient response is a recurring theme of many video games: players who decide and press the button first, win. Does playing such games translate into everyday life and make you better than the average person in tasks where relying on your senses and making swift decisions is needed, or is it a waste of valuable time?
Extensive Video Game players (VGP) may display greater visual processing than non-video gamers (non-VGP). First-person shooters Call of Duty, Halo and Battlefield bombard you with massive amounts of visual information, with game graphics more intense and realistic than ever. You are placed in the perspective of your character whereby you have a fraction of a second to react when seeing your opponents. Fast reaction times are imperative to play this game successfully. Professor Green and Professor Bavelier from University of Rochester tested how well VGP and non-VGP keep track of multiple objects and the distance tracking of objects when distracting objects are present. VGP were shown to be better at tracking visual stimuli compared to non-VGPs. When trained in video gaming, non-VGPs expressed improvement in visual acuity; presenting evidence that playing action games will improve the brain’s ability to process complex visual content.
Hand-eye coordination is also better developed in video gamers. During the games, you know where your hands are going to move without having to look. This enhances your coordination and reflexes without having to pay attention to what you are doing. The more often you perform a certain task, the more your coordination becomes second nature. This is likewise true for actions such as riding bicycles, or typing on your smartphone. Gamers also have an advantage in recognising patterns that require sensorimotor skills through the use of action and rhythm games (e.g. Dance Central, Guitar Hero).
A constant theme within action games are the aforementioned fast-paced games where quick decisions with the immediate information one has obtained will decide the victor of the game. You play on a map where you keep track of certain objectives and act on information from teammates and enemies alike. The Massive Online Battle Grounds (MOBA’s) test your ability to keep track of the information and act on it with efficiency, like solving multiple pieces of a puzzle to gain the upper hand. Fast decisions usually mean more mistakes but Professor Matthew Dye and others found video gamers could make decisions faster without a loss in accuracy.
Why do gamers’ brains have improved visual processing and rapid decision making? Well the answer lies with the grey matter in your brain. Grey matter is involved in muscle control, sensory perception, decision making and self-control. Playing video games requires a high amount of cerebral activity, so in response the brain produces more grey matter. This increases your sensory processing time, your fast decision making and improved muscle coordination, for example catching the surprise falling milk when you open the fridge.
Not only does the brain produce more grey matter to adjust to the bombardment of stimuli, it also improves the connectivity of different regions of the brain which are associated with the senses and decision making. The insular cortex region, often only seen in humans and great apes, is a sub-region of the brain associated with language recognition, attention focus and hand-eye motor movement. A functional MRI of this sub-region showed higher connectivity in professional gamers compared to non-gamers. The sub-region also improves when a subject is committed to other repetitive, skill-based tasks such as exercise and playing instruments.
Figure 2 Comparison of Brain Connectivity between Professional gamers and Non-gamers. L is the fMRI of the professional gamers brain and R is non-gamer’s brain Credit: Diankun Gong et. al. Scientific Reports
Researchers have managed to shed a positive light on gaming. Video gaming rehabilitation is an active research field in order to explore mental health benefits in patients with neurological diseases or physical benefits for patients struggling with sensorimotor functions, such as autism. While playing games may take up a lot of your time, it should not be called a waste. You brain is getting better at perceiving, processing and responding. So pick up that controller and start enhancing your brain from your living room couch and feel less guilty for putting in that extra hour of gaming instead of planning that essay.