How Do Video Games Affect The Brain?

Young girl playing video games




Article at a Glance

  • Video games can increase cognitive skills, teamwork and activate the rewards centre of the brain. 
  • There is a minimal link between violent video games, aggression and violent behaviour. 
  • Video games can assist with reducing ADHD symptoms as well as the negative effects of ageing on the brain. 


When the term “video games” is mentioned in a conversation, two things usually come up: eSports tournaments and video game addiction. With the rise of video games, eSports has become a popular profession and gamers have the opportunity to make a lot of money playing video games. However, gaming can also become an addiction due to the spike in dopamine when playing video games such as Fortnite [1]. There are both positives and negatives to video games.



Teenage boy excited while winning a video game



Addiction to Video Games or a Dopamine Hit?

Marc Palus, PhD in Cognitive Neuroscience from the Open University of Catalonia, says that video game addiction has many similarities to other addictions. When looking at addiction it is important to understand how the brain works, in this case, the focus is on the rewards centre. A study [2]  from 1998 showed playing a video game and winning, floods the rewards with dopamine and players feel pride and happiness. In order to prevent video game addiction and create healthy gaming habits, players need to have different stimuli and not just video games feeding the rewards centre. 



Teen playing video games on multiple screens 


Video Games, Cognition and Other Brain Functions

Video games have been studied since their inception and many studies [3] [4] have shown the benefits of video games in cognitive behaviour. Not only does it improve visual capabilities, such as moving and rotating objects and storing them in memory, but it also improves softer skills, such as decision making, strategizing and multi-tasking. However, training these skills should only be done in short bursts and playing video games for long periods can have negative effects on memory and other skills. Online games also have many social aspects, players can work in teams and assist each other with various tasks. This can develop skills such as teamwork and communication [5] Many of the studies end in multiple results and some results do not have a general consensus as each person and each video game has different skills and skill levels. 



Studies have shown very little relation between video games and anger and violence in teens and young adults



Violence in Video Games

The nature of video games is attractive to young minds. Video games in various genres can teach many different skills and improve brain development, but how does it affect the emotional state and well-being of developing brains? When more violent games, such as games with themes of war and fighting, gained popularity, many psychologists and researchers started researching the effects of violent videogames on teens and a link to anger management and violent behaviour. One study, “The Hitman Study” [6]  is by Christopher J. Ferguson and Stephanie M. Rueda. The study worked with 103 teens and young adults. The study’s results showed no link between violent video games and real-life aggression or violence. They do suggest that violent games can reduce depression and hostile feelings through mood management. Another study by Ferguson [7] done two years later also showed that video games have a minimal influence on aggression and violence in teens and young adults. 



A study with children and teens with hyperactivity and ADHD shows video games can reduce the symptoms of ADHD. 


Hyperactive Brains and Video Games

Many companies have tried to create video games to benefit children with ADHD, but unfortunately, they have had minimal success [8]  Instead many children with ADHD are playing games with action and flood their senses with visual stimulation and also activate the rewards centre. In this environment, the ADHD brain can function and focus, some children do not even show symptoms of hyperactivity or ADHD while playing. 



Video games can also assist the elderly with cognition and brain function 


Can Video Games Improve Older Brains?

A 2013 study [9] by scientists from the University of California used video games to reverse the negative effect of aging on the brain. The study worked with adults ages 60-85 and created a video game to test their cognitive and multi-tasking skills. Throughout the study the participants received 12 hours of gameplay and training, the final tests showed that some participants' skills improved drastically and even surpassed the performance of adults in their 20s playing for the first time. The study also showed that participants were able to focus and stay in an engaged active state longer after training. 



Pro gamers in a gaming study showed that cognition and brain function related to video games decreased when gaming time was reduced.



Pro-Gamer Brains vs Gaming as a Hobby

Video games are very popular and with the rise of esports as a career and profession, many young adults spend hours playing video games and training for esports tournaments. A 2013 study [10]  showed that approximately 2.2 billion people playing video games worldwide spent approximately 3 billion hours playing video games weekly. In a 2019 study [11]  both expert, professional gamers and non-experts were challenged to decrease their gaming time to less than 3 hours a week for a year. After the study, the expert gamers showed a drastic decrease in game play skills as well as brain development. The initial scans showed the experts had a higher level of cognitive skills and brain development. However, the expert gamers had a larger decrease in cognitive skills at the end of the study than the non-experts. The reduction in video game play for experts decreased brain activity and cognitive skills reduced, while the results for non-expert gamers was not as drastic. 



Wrapping it up

Gaming can assist with improving many skills, such as cognitive skills, teamwork and multi-tasking. There is a minimal link in violent video games and violent behaviour. Violent games can even reduce aggression, depression and hostile feelings towards others. Video games can also reduce the negative effects of ageing on the brain and in some cases improve their overall brain activity. Professional expert gamers show a decrease in cognitive skills and brain development when game play is reduced.  




[1] What Gaming Does to Your Brain—and How You Might Benefit

[2] Evidence for striatal dopamine release during a video game

[3] Effects of computer gaming on cognition, brain structure, and function: a critical reflection on existing literature

[4] Academic Uses of Video Games: A Qualitative Assessment of Research and Teaching Needs at a Large Research University

[5] Video Games Affect the Brain—for Better and Worse

[6] The Hitman Study

[7] Just a game after all: Violent video game exposure and time spent playing effects on hostile feelings, depression, and visuospatial cognition

[8] Game Theory: The Effects of Video Games on the Brain

[9] Training the older brain in 3-D: Video game enhances cognitive control

[10] Amount of lifetime video gaming is positively associated with entorhinal, hippocampal and occipital volume

[11] A Reduction in Video Gaming Time Produced a Decrease in Brain Activity