Video Games Can Have Surprisingly Good Effects on the Brain

Studies of video games show benefits of eye-hand coordination, and more

By Richard Restak, MD, The George Washington University School of Medicine and Health Sciences
Edited by Kate Findley and proofread by Angela Shoemaker, The Great Courses Daily

Globally, 500 million gamers spend more than an hour a day playing video games. The hardcore gamers spend 25 hours per week. From a neurological perspective, video games are not all that bad, as Dr. Restak explains.

Close up of man playing video games
Although video gamers can spend huge amounts of time playing video games, losing time for other activities, they can gain several developmental benefits for the brain. Photo By BONDART PHOTOGRAPHY / Shutterstock

Video Games and the Brain

It’s safe to say that video gaming is here to stay. World of Warcraft (WoW) has 10 million subscribers, with gamers averaging 12.5 hours a week. Forty percent of Americans are regular players, and the average age is not 16 or 17, but age 35. That’s all the more reason that we understand the effects that video games have on the brain.

First of all, they provide immediate performance feedback. A Nature study showed that action video games improve peripheral visual attention

Video games can also lead to enhanced eye-hand coordination and reflex responses, as well as increased contrast sensitivity, which is important in night driving when vision is reduced. Games involving teamwork also increase collaboration skills. 

There is research on video gaming done primarily by Daphne Bavelier and Shawn Green, her assistant, at the Center for Visual Science University of Rochester. They carried out an experiment in which they compared students who did and did not play video games. 

They had a problem finding students who didn’t play at least some video games. However, they kept searching and eventually found a control group to compare to the test group of action video gamers. 

In the experiment, everybody stared at the screen. A random target was flashed in one of 24 possible sites, followed by a flooding of the screen with a clutter of objects. Each study participant was asked where the original target had appeared on the screen. 

Regular video game players were 80% accurate. They could remember and go back through all the chaos that occurred briefly and remember that first flash. Non-players were only 30% accurate. 

The attentional blink was also reduced. The attentional blink refers to the time required to detect a second target during a rapid fire target sequence, where it shoots off white flashes. Due to attentional blink, a person who recognized the first one, will miss the next one or the one after the next one.

Subitizing and Simulations

Subitizing is also improved by 50%, which is the ability to instantly estimate the number of items in a small set. For example, when you’re checking out at the supermarket, you can look at all the different lines to decide which one is the shortest. You don’t count everybody; you just evaluate which one appears shorter. 

Frequent use of video games can allow gamers to notice more details, concentrate better, and respond quicker. Additionally, components of IQ can even be increased. The principal benefits derived from video gaming include specific, real-world skills. 

For at least 20 years, airline pilots have been getting into flight simulators, which are essentially video games. 

“I’ve been in myself with pilots, and [the simulators] are very challenging,” Dr. Restak said. “You think you’re actually in an airline cockpit, but it’s simulated.” 

Surgeons can train for surgical operations using similar simulated processes. Additionally, musicians can use programs such as Guitar Hero to improve their craft. 

In fact, action video games are more likely to enhance your brain function than the Brain Gym programs that you see advertised. They are also more likely to keep your mind and emotions engaged as compared to the repetitive “mental workouts” provided by the commercial, brain-training programs.

Real-World Applications of Video Games

Going forward, our society will get the video games it demands. According to researcher Shawn Greene, “Video-game research is opening a fascinating window into the amazing capability of the brain and behavior to be reshaped by experience.” 

Positive applications of video games include games in which you tackle real-world problems. These games present opportunities for advancements in status and rewards—it’s called leveling up in the game world, and it’s getting some prestige in a legitimate way. 

For example, a game called Evoke by serious game designer Jane McGonigal involves creative collaborations on solving world problems like water safety and food security. Other real-world games include Darfur Is Dying, which is managing a refugee camp, or World without Oil, which is responding to a simulated world oil crisis. 

In Play the News, players take on the role of world leaders facing various crises; while in Fate of the World, you have to call the shots over the next 200 years to manage global warming.

Video games can also be used to improve mental and physical conditioning, such as with the Wii Fitness Program, which simulates various sports like tennis and boxing. The important thing for physical conditioning is to find activities that match your interests and that you will enjoy practicing.

This article was edited by Kate Findley, Writer for The Great Courses Daily, and proofread by Angela Shoemaker, Proofreader and Copy Editor for The Great Courses Daily.
Dr. Richard Restak is Clinical Professor of Neurology at The George Washington University School of Medicine and Health Sciences. He earned his MD from Georgetown University School of Medicine. Professor Restak also maintains an active private practice in neurology and neuropsychiatry in Washington, D.C.
About Kate Findley 450 Articles
Kate is a writer, novelist, and blogger living in Los Angeles. She has been writing for The Great Courses since 2017. It incorporates her two favorite things: writing and learning.