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Gaming and the Brain

31 August 2021Ananto Joyoadikusumo

Gaming influences our brains, and our brains influence how we play games

The brain is undoubtedly the most complicated and fascinating organ in the human body. It practically defines who we are, our beliefs, emotions, well-being, and the entirety of our lives. However, the mind is also incredibly susceptible to changes in the environment. What we eat, drink, watch, listen can alter the circuitry of the mind in one way or another.

The same thing goes with playing video games. Gaming, for better or worse, can affect how our brains operate. This relationship also works the other way around: the state of our brain can change our performance and behavior in-game. Unlike most traditional sports out there, gaming emphasizes the cognitive capabilities of humans, similar to board games like chess. Dota 2, CS:GO, VALORANT, all your beloved games is simply a mental battle between you and your opponents. It doesn’t matter if you are tall, short, thin, fat, ugly, or beautiful you can play games and grind your brains to become the best in the world.

Esports organizations today also begin to realize the importance of the relationship between the brain and gaming, consequently hiring a professional psychologist to support their esports rosters.

Astralis, arguably the best CS:GO team of all time, was perhaps one of the pioneers who collaborated with a sports psychologist. Before this project, Astralis was undoubtedly still a solid team and is considered one of the future prospects in Europe CS:GO. However, around 2015-2016, they hit a major roadblock. The Danish team simply couldn’t close out any tournament they participated in and have trouble getting through most semifinals. Even worse, most of their losses were usually a result of a choke, meaning that they lose games despite securing an early lead over the opponent.

Although the CS:GO community simply thought that this was a curse, Astralis knew that this was all about mindset. They soon hired Mia Stellberg, perhaps the best and the most famous esports psychologist today, and the rest was history. In 2018, the Astralis roster was practically undefeatable, winning almost every LAN they enter. OG also hired her in 2019, which ultimately led to the only two consecutive The International wins ever in Dota 2 History.

Mia Stellberg (most left) and the whole OG roster when they won TI9 | Source: miastellberg.com

From these examples, we can see that gaming and the brain are highly correlated and can influence each other in many profound ways. In this article, we will be taking a look at the effects of video games on the brain, basing our discussion on scientific works conducted by experts in the field. Aside from the effects on brain performance, I will also be including mental health issues of gaming in one of the sections, since it is highly correlated to our brain’s functionality. Furthermore, although I stand by the side of gaming, I will try to balance out all the pros and cons that come with this topic.

Depression and Anxiety

Source: Freepik

Before understanding how gaming affects depression or anxiety, we need to understand what each of them really is. Depression is very similar to being unhappy, although it is important to note that the two things are not the same. Most unhappy people are not content with their lives. Depressed individuals, however, may already be satisfied in life but still have a sense of deep underlying sadness. Anxiety is simply being overly worried about the potential challenges or problems we will face in the future. The key thing in depression and anxiety is how both of them deal with negative emotions. You’ll see why this is important later on.

Let’s get one simple fact out of the window: gaming does not cause depression nor anxiety. There is, indeed, a correlation between depression and gaming, as shown by the study entitled Daily Violent Video Game Playing and Depression in Preadolescent Youth. However, a correlative relationship does not imply causation, and many have falsely cited this article to berate gaming as a whole. In simpler terms, one thing does not necessarily cause another thing by being correlated to each other. If ice cream sales increase when crime rates increase, it does not mean that ice creams cause murders.

Likewise, people with depression or anxiety most likely turn to games to escape their life problems and consequently worsen their condition. Gaming can be extremely dangerous for people with depression or anxiety because it can shut down negative emotions. Having no negative emotions will trick your brain into giving a false sense of security regarding your life.

I personally have felt this effect a couple of times when playing games, and I’m sure that all of you gaming enthusiasts had as well. When we play, all our life problems, school, and work seem to disappear into thin air. Fortunately, for me, I was able to go back to the real world and realize all my upcoming deadlines. However, people who have a severe case of depression and anxiety will never want to re-experience the negative emotions, which in turn causes them to get stuck in gaming. When they do not stop playing, their life gets worse, they become more depressed or anxious, and the whole process becomes a negative feedback loop. So, does gaming cause depression? No, but it sure can spiral depression out of control.

However, a proper dose of gaming has been shown to be somewhat effective in combating depression and anxiety. Researchers from Michigan State University have used elements of gaming to “reduce anxiety by helping people focus in an increasingly distracting world”. Another study has also found links between video games and improvements in mental health. The researchers argued that gaming has the potential to introduce positive emotions, engagement, build meaningful relationships, and give a sense of fulfillment or purpose in life. Even so, I wouldn’t suggest using gaming to cure depression or anxiety. If you feel like you might have any of these two illnesses or conditions, please visit a licensed mental health professional and get their opinion.

Attention

The older generation often criticized youngsters nowadays for having a short attention span. They also usually blame social media, the internet, or gaming as the primary causes of this behavior, and they wouldn’t be completely wrong. Several studies have found that gaming, especially the ones related to violence, may have a negative effect on attention and the ability to concentrate for long periods of time. Experts in the field hypothesized that this is due to the high levels of dopamine bursts that gaming provides. Indeed, a lot of video games today are fast-paced, filled with new challenges and environments that highly stimulate the brain. As a result, when faced with much slower and “uninteresting” activities (such as lectures, doing homework, etc), gamers often feel unmotivated in executing them.

The fast-paced nature of video games can leave us unmotivated when doing less dynamic tasks | Source: Freepik

On the other hand, there are also studies that claim the opposing idea, similar to that of depression and anxiety. Researchers from the University of Arkansas found that one hour of gaming can increase focus and specifically boost attention selection. This claim is especially true for action-packed games that display a lot of information to the players.

Let’s take Dota 2 as an example. Dota 2 players have to pay attention to their hero, the creeps, enemy heroes, and map just to iterate a few. They will then use this information to make the necessary quick decisions and output their actions in the game. Of course, you can’t always look at creeps and the map at the same time. Similarly, it wouldn’t be wise to look at the map in a 5v5 teamfight situation.

The best Dota 2 players know when to glance at the map, when to focus on their hero positioning, and what to look out for at specific time frames. This act of selecting information is called attention selection, and it is a key skill to have in almost all fast-paced games like Dota 2. Furthermore, this skill can be utilized in our daily activities, allowing us to block out distractions and use our brainpower more efficiently.

Dota 2 players have to constantly scan their screen for key information | Source: Steam

Therefore, gamers might not be able to concentrate on long boring activities, but they may be able to pick out and selectively focus on the most crucial information when doing tasks.

Alexithymia

Unlike depression or anxiety, every single gamer is exceedingly susceptible to Alexithymia. The condition arises when someone becomes unable to identify or describe the emotions they experience. Alexithymia is usually caused by the frequent suppression of emotions, which is sometimes what our society highly promotes.

Expressing our emotions can often be viewed as a sign of weakness, unreliability, and unprofessionalism. Similar to the case of depression and anxiety, gaming can be used as an escape strategy and suppress these critical emotions. More scientifically, the amygdala (the part of our brain that controls feelings or emotions) rarely actuates when we play games and deteriorates in its function. Our emotions build up and eventually get vented out when we game, which is why some gamers frequently find themselves outbursting in toxicity over simple in-game mistakes. Although it may sound slightly paradoxical, the suppression of our emotions will ultimately manifest in anger, an emotion itself.

The location of the amygdala | Source: The Science of Psychotherapy

I myself have experienced this issue firsthand in the past. Playing games can be exceptionally frustrating at times, and I often find myself trying to hold back from toxicity. After playing, it can be troubling to feel apathy or empathy and have concerns about other people’s problems.

Fortunately, I finally stopped “tryhard-ing” in Dota or CS:GO ranked games and try to have fun, the sole reason why I play games in the first place. Playing with friends in a Discord call also helps with this endeavor and express my emotions more freely. I was remarkably lucky to get out of the rabbit hole of Alexithymia before the condition can fully manifest. If you think that you might have this condition, it’s never too late to change your behavior for the better.

Boosting Your Brain’s Performance

In traditional sports, training will enhance your body and make it stronger. As I mentioned in the introduction, gaming is a mental sport. So can playing games improve your brain’s performance just like going to the gym? Although most conventional adults might disagree, studies have indeed shown that gaming can, one way or another, make you “smarter”.

Going back on track, researchers in UC Irvine have found that 3D games can improve memory and spatial awareness. Indeed, MOBA, FPS, and most gaming genres out there require some sort of map layout memorization. All games, as a matter of fact, require us to remember combos, strategies, counters, etc. The part of our brain that gets exercised when conducting these memorizations is the Hippocampus. If you want to know more about the intricacies of this topic, you can definitely check out this article written by yours truly.

The hippocampus plays a major role in learning and memory | Source: Wikipedia

But of course, gaming is not all about memorization. A large part of what defines a video game is the challenge and problem-solving aspect it provides. According to a study by Charles Reynaldo, gaming was shown to be able to highly improve decision-making and problem-solving skills that could, in turn, be applied in daily life settings. Researches at OpenAI even found Dota 2 players to be rather incredible since they have to practically make around 30 decisions every second.

Despite the benefits that gaming provides to the brain, teachers and parents often use video games as the culprit behind students’ declining grades. As much as I hate to say this, they are not wrong. If you continuously train your brain, it only makes sense for you to have an easier time learning in school and improve your academic performance. However, like all things in life, too much is never good. It doesn’t matter if you get +200IQ from gaming; if you don’t study, you will still fail the exam. Always balance out your gaming time with your education or work.

Conclusion

Before closing out this article, I would like to point out the similarities between gaming and chess. Video games, whether you agree or not, are a modern, more updated version of chess. Although both of them may require different skill sets to master, they both enhance the brain’s ability to make decisions and solve problems. They also both have the capability to drive people insane and depressed. Look at where chess has brought Bobby Fischer. He used to be one of the most genius chess players in the world but later become deranged, radical, recluse, and unfitting to society due to his overlooked mental problems.

Video games, chess, and everything in life can affect our brain’s ciruitry in some way. Whether you are a gamer or not, it is imperative for us to understand how our brains change in response to the activities we conduct so that we can avoid threatening mental conditions before they can fully manifest.

Featured Image: Freepik

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