Internet gaming is still a relatively new concept, yet it is one we are already very familiar with as it bounced into the limelight over the past decade. And I really mean it when I say “bounced”, with the market in China alone being estimated to be worth $12 billion!
There is also a growing amount of literature looking at how video games can affect both our physical and mental health, and it looks like online gaming may have brought about a new kind of mental illness.
This new condition is known as “Internet Gaming Disorder” (IGD), and its more than a simple enjoyment of online games. People with IGD play to the detriment of other areas in their life, neglecting their health, school work, even their family and friends. They also experience withdrawal symptoms if they are prevented from getting their fix.
All that being said, the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Health Disorders 5th Edition (DSM-5) does not currently list IGD, stating that its a “condition warranting more clinical research” before its included. Well this new research might be what was asked for, as it provides new evidence of brain differences between people who do and do not have the disorder.
The study participants, all adolescent males between 10 and 19 years of age, were screened in South Korea where online gaming is an even greater social activity than it is in the US. In fact, most research on this matter comes from young males all around Asia since it’s where the disorder is most commonly found. The Korean government also supported the research, hoping to be able to identify and treat addicts.
The research was a collaboration between the University of Utah School of Medicine and Chung-Ang University in South Korea, and was published online in Addiction Biology. It involved taking MRI scans of all participants, 78 of whom were seeking treatment for IGD and 73 who were not.
What they found was that participants suffering from IGD showed hyperconnectivity between several pairs of brain networks, and you can find a list of all the pairs here. Some of these changes could help gamers respond to new information, whereas other are associated with being easily distracted and having poor impulse control.
One of the potentially beneficial changes was improved coordination between areas that process vision or hearing and the Salience Network. This is the area of the brain responsible for focussing a person’s attention on important events and preparing them to react. You can probably see why that would be useful to an online gamer, allowing them to dodge a hoard of bullets or react to a charging foe.
According to author Jeffrey Anderson, M.D, Ph.D, this could lead to “a more robust ability to direct attention towards targets and recognise novel information in the environment”, and “could essentially help someone to think more efficiently”. But without follow up studies to determine if performance is actually improved, this is only a hypothesis.
A more worrying find was that participants with IGD showed weaker coordination between the Dorsolateral Prefrontal Cortex and the Temporoparietal Junction than those without the disorder. These same changes are seen in patients with Schizophrenia, Down Syndrome, Autism, and those with poor impulse control. It is thought that this could also lead to increased distractability.
But despite all these findings it is currently unclear if chronic video game playing causes these changes in the brain, or if people with these differences are drawn to the gaming world. Much more research will be required before that question can be answered.
So should you spend less time in the virtual world of video games? Well at this point we don’t really know. It might be good for you, but there might also be more benefits than drawbacks. Either way, this is an area of research that is continuing to grow, and its certainly worth keeping an eye on. I know I will be.
Sources not mentioned in text:
- Newman, T. (2015). Gamer’s brain: hyperconnected but easily distracted. Medical News Today. Retrieved 5 January 2016, from http://www.medicalnewstoday.com/articles/304474.php
- Nield, D. (2016). The brains of compulsive gamers are wired differently, study finds. ScienceAlert. Retrieved 5 January 2016, from http://www.sciencealert.com/the-brains-of-compulsive-gamers-are-wired-differently-study-finds