Video Games and the Human Brain

Video games challenge players to solve problems, overcome obstacles and, in many cases, learn. While some argue that games can be extremely effective education tools, researchers have just started to scratch the surface of what actually happens in our brain when we play games.

Cerebral Cortex, a research journal for papers about the study of the cerebral cortex, published a recent report by the University of Pittsburgh’s Kirk Erikson, Assistant Professor of Psychology, about certain regions of the brain that seem to facilitate advanced understanding of interactive media. In other words, Erikson discovered four distinct areas of the brain that might actually make us better at playing video games.

The caudate nucleus, putamen, nucleus accumbens and hippocampus, were all discovered to have an impact on a person’s ability to comprehend and engage interactive digital media. Even more, it was noted that participants with larger nucleus accumbens were noticeably more proficient in the early, learning stage of a game, what we often refer to in the industry as the, “learning curve.” Conversely, those with a larger than average caudate nucleus and putamen were better at adapting to changing strategies within the game. It would seem that while the nucleus accumbens helps the player establish a firm understanding of the overall game world, the caudate nucleus and putamen help the player understand how it evolves and changes with their input.

Here's an image of the brain showing the caudate nucleus (blue), putamen (red), nucleus accumbens (orange spot) and hippocampus (green).

The study is problematic, as Arizona State’s James Gee points out in response, because the internal structure of the brain and external stimuli interact in very complex ways. As Gee points out, ” it is hard to tell whether a set of experiences led to a brain difference (e.g., more reading leading to changes in the brain) or a brain difference led to people wanting, getting, and being better at some experiences (e.g., seeking out reading and liking it more and being better at it).” This kind of brings us back to the nature v. nurture argument, except we’re talking about one’s ability to play video games, rather than the ability to adapt and survive.

If anything, this study shows just how little we actually do know about the cognitive faculties that are engaged during game playing. It’s clear that there is a positive correlation between video game interaction and cognitive development, and if there are scientists out there that want to claim that you have to be smart to play video games, I’m okay with that.