The Negative Impact of Video Games on the Brain and Cognition

impact of video games

A new study on the impact of video games determines whether both the navigation strategy that players use and the genre of game they choose play a role in determining if playing the game will be beneficial or detrimental to the user.

Research has demonstrated that people who play action video games exhibit better visual attention, motor control abilities, and short-term memory.  However, the impact of video games may lead to negative changes in the brain and cognition.

The hippocampus is a region of the brain that helps people to orient themselves (spatial memory) and to remember past experiences (episodic memory).  As such, it is important for healthy cognition.  Another region of the brain is the striatum, which counterbalances the hippocampus. It has an area known as the caudate nucleus that acts as a kind of “autopilot” and “reward system” – getting us home from work, for example, and telling us when it’s time to eat, drink, have sex, and do other things that keep us alive and happy. The caudate nucleus also helps us form habits and remember how to do things like ride a bicycle.  Gaming has been shown to stimulate the caudate nucleus more than the hippocampus. As many as 85% of players rely on that part of the brain to navigate their way through a game.

A study conducted at the University of Montreal and published in Molecular Psychiatry investigated the role of these two regions in the brain in determining whether or not playing video games boosted brain power.

Nearly 100 participants between 18 to 30 years of age (51 men and 46 women) were recruited into the study.  To establish which participants were spatial learners (that is, those who favoured their hippocampus) versus response learners (those using the caudate nucleus), the research team first had each of them run through a “4-on-8” virtual maze on their computer. From a central hub, they had to navigate down four identical-looking paths to capture target objects, then, after their gates were removed, go down the four others. To remember which paths they’d already been down and not waste time looking for the objects they’d already taken, spatial learners oriented themselves by the landmarks in the background: a rock, a mountain, two trees. Response learners didn’t do this; they ignored the landmarks and concentrated instead on remembering a series of right and left turns in a sequence from their starting position.

Once researchers established the learning strategies, participants then began playing either first-person shooter games (like Call of Duty, Killzone, Medal of Honor, or Borderlands 2) or 3D-platform games such as Super Mario 64.

After participants had played a total of 90 hours of video games, the researchers used neuroimaging to scan the brains of habitual players of action video games and compare them to non-players. The same amount of screen time on each genre of video game produced very different effects.   There was evidence that shooter games can cause atrophy in the hippocampus. Evidently, the more they use the caudate nucleus, the less they use the hippocampus and as a result, the hippocampus began showing signs of atrophy.  This is significant because people with lower amounts of grey matter in the hippocampus are known to be at increased risk of developing depression, schizophrenia, PTSD, and Alzheimer’s disease.

On the bright side, the same amount of screen time with 3D-platform games had the opposite effect, increasing the amount of grey matter in the brain.  As such, it may be possible to counteract the negative effects of shooter video games by encouraging response learners to use spatial strategies when they are playing.  This study shows that video games can be beneficial or detrimental to the hippocampal system depending on the navigational strategy the individual uses.

Written by Debra A. Kellen, PhD


G L West, K Konishi, M Diarra, J Benady-Chorney, B L Drisdelle, L Dahmani, D J Sodums, F Lepore, P Jolicoeur, V D Bohbot. Impact of video games on plasticity of the hippocampus. Molecular Psychiatry, 2017; DOI: 10.1038/mp.2017.155

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