Games that increase (or decrease) brain power

Posted on August 10, 2017

The type of game you play can mess with your brain.  Literally.

Researchers have generally agreed that playing video games results in increased attention skills, motor control and short-term memory.  However, Canadian researchers have found playing video games can also have potentially detrimental effects on the brain – depending on the type of game.

In a study looking at people aged between 18 and 30 who had never played these types of games before, a comparison was made between those who played action first-person shooter games like Call of Duty, Killzone, Medal of Honor and Borderlands 2, to the 3D platform game Super Mario 64.  The results found differences in the amount of grey matter after gameplay – those who played first person shooters had less, and the Mario 3D platformers had more.

Killshot screenshot

Grey matter is the stuff in your brain (in the hippocampus for those playing at home) responsible for muscle control and sensory perception such as hearing, memory, emotions, speech, decision making and self-control.

“Thanks to navigation tests and brain scans, our studies show that response learners, those players using their brain’s autopilot and reward system to navigate, experienced grey matter loss in their hippocampus after playing action video games for 90 hours. The hippocampus is the key structure involved in spatial memory (orientation) and episodic memory (autobiographical events) within the brain. On the contrary, spatial learners, those using their hippocampus to navigate, increased their grey matter after playing for the same amount of time,” said the leading author of the study Dr Greg West (University of Montréal).

Diagram of brain and hippocampus
Location of the hippocampus

Why is this important?  Well, if you have low amounts of grey matter you are an increased risk of things like depression, schizophrenia, bipolar disorder, post-traumatic stress disorder and even Alzheimer’s disease or dementia.  People with higher IQ scores tend to have higher amounts of grey matter.

Does this mean you need to stop playing first person shooters or you will become bipolar?  Not exactly.  This study was not looking at whether these games cause any long-lasting effect on the brain and it is not known whether the grey matter loss shown was enough to be put gamers at any kind of risk.  What it means is that there are some aspects of the game design of first person shooters that can decrease grey matter, and more work is needed to find out if it is a bad thing, and if so, let game developers know what to change.

While there are many brain training programs out there that seem to be no more effective than any video game, this study suggests that maybe you need to start exploring a virtual world with Mario instead.  It just might make you a bit ‘smarter’.  Wee-hee!

The study “Impact of video games on plasticity of the hippocampus” was published in Molecular Psychiatry online ahead of print on 8 August 2017. DOI: 10.1038/mp.2017.155