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

What Gaming Does to Your Brain

It’s not easy to stay away from Azeroth, which is to remain unsubscribed from Blizzard Entertainment’s enduring online game, World of Warcraft.

I can attest to the pull of WoW’s constantly new dungeons, raids, and battlegrounds as someone who has played the game for more than 600 days over the past 14 years. When I’m at an end of the day, the first thing that comes to my mind is logging on to my level-60 rogue. If I don’t play for an extended period, I’ll see WoW in my dreams. On both a conscious and subconscious level, I cannot escape it.

However, video game “addiction” isn’t confined to WoW; it’s cross-genre and cross-platform. As well as addiction, video games have several neurological and psychological effects. So how do video games affect our brains, scientifically? Can video games benefit the brain despite their drawbacks?

The Mushy, Fun-Loving Brain and Addiction

When it comes to the effects of video gaming, addiction is typically the first thing that comes to mind. Various studies on this topic by psychologists and neuroscientists seek to discern if this substance-free addiction is a real mental health concern. According to Marc Palaus, who has a Ph.D. in cognitive neuroscience from the Open University of Catalonia, there is not much difference between video game addiction and any other type. It is believed that the reward system in our brains may be responsible for how we respond positively to enjoy activities such as playing video games. When faced with something which pleases us, we will try to experience it again. Video games are no exception here either.

Considering WoW’s longevity and impressive following (at the time of writing, there are around 5 million monthly players), DIY support communities aren’t surprising. /r/nowow, a subreddit with over 1,000 members, functions as a safe space where struggling WoW addicts can share experiences of broken relationships, wasted time, and relapses.

The highly engaging and enjoyable world-away-from-our-own-world, with its daily and weekly quests and never-ending updates, has sucked many a gamer in.

Lee Chambers, an environmental psychologist I interacted with, had a narrative much like the posts seen on /r/nowow. He stated that he found World of Warcraft during his sophomore year of university at a time when his mental health was undergoing difficulties. The game provided him with the social link he desperately sought but it eventually grew into a dependency as his psychological wellness declined. He became sucked in and blocked out life until his parents forced him to return home after secluding himself for days on end. Fortunately, Chambers has since made a full recovery.

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The King of Quick Dopamine Hits, Fortnite

There is a world of difference between the fast-paced environments of shooters and the slower-paced grind of MMORPGs, such as WoW, Final Fantasy XIV, and Elder Scrolls Online. The candy-hued survival shooter Fortnite by Epic Games is particularly interesting when it comes to video games and the brain, in part because it has become a cultural phenomenon, especially among young gamers with still-developing brains.

At its heart, Fortnite is a fast-paced, endlessly enjoyable game with co-op, battle royale, and sandbox modes to suit varied tastes. Matches can be over in as little as 20 minutes – or even faster should your aptitude and luck take you by surprise. The thrill of staying alive while being pitted against others brings out the dopamine neurotransmitter – not just a surge of pleasure but an eagerness to play another round! Winning is only half the fun; donning pop-culture-referencing skins and throwing post-ironic shapes further ramps up the rewards.

The remarkably strong pull of Fortnite, involving gamers keeping at it for long hours, is well known. In 2018, a 9-year-old girl in the UK made headlines worldwide after she attempted to enter rehab due to her compulsive playing of the game. That prompted a legal firm based in Montreal to file a class-action lawsuit against Epic Games for allegedly exploiting this addictive quality in their design. Even the British royal family was concerned about it – Prince Harry spoke out saying, “That game shouldn’t be allowed.”

Although it has had some negative publicity, Fortnite and similar games have been observed to have several advantageous effects on brain functions. These types of first- and third-person shooters can enhance spatial thinking, judgment-making, and attention – all countering the common misconception about such games. In an article by Men’s Health, Yo Zushi remarked that “the adrenaline rushes experienced while being tracked down in Fortnite Battle Royale is beneficial; positive pressure within gaming environments aids motivation and helps sharpen one’s ability to concentrate in real life situations.”

There’s more to life than doom and gloom

In terms of psychological and neurological research on video games, it’s still in its infancy, or its early alpha phase, as you might say. Because video games are modern inventions, there isn’t anything to worry about when it comes to research. Video games can help us improve our brains and cognitive skill sets, especially over time.

In the late 1990s, at the University of Rochester, Daphne Bavelier and C. Shawn Green led the way in video game research. They began exploring the unconventional idea that video games could affect and perhaps even aid with neuroplasticity—a biological process where the brain changes and adapts when exposed to new experiences.

After years of investigation, researchers determined that certain action games, such as the retro-style Doom and Team Fortress Classic, which involve testing reflexes and hand-eye coordination, have genuine cognitive benefits applicable in everyday life. As reported by Bavelier and Green in Scientific American’s July 2016 issue: “Individuals who engage in this type of gaming can better focus on small details like the text on legal documents or prescription bottle labels; their sensitivity to visual contrast is also improved, which is necessary for driving in foggy conditions. In addition, those who play these games find it simpler to multitask between reading a menu during a conversation.”

In Bavelier’s TEDxCHUV talk “Your Brain on Video Games,” she makes the case that playing action games like Call of Duty in reasonable doses can have a beneficial effect on the brain. Parents should not perceive their kids’ virtual zombie and designated “bad” guy shooting as brainless, she says.


Many reports have identified the brain-related advantages of playing video games. UC Irvine researchers determined that 3D games can boost the capacity of the hippocampus, a part of the brain that plays a role in learning and memory. The Queen Mary University of London and University College London researchers found that titles can sharpen mental agility and enhance strategic thinking. This is similar to what James Mitchell, an enthusiastic gamer and UX designer, revealed when I asked him about how gaming has impacted him: “I would say my critical thinking and strategy skills have been improved, and it’s simpler for me to determine certain moves, particularly concerning other games or card games. I have also gotten apt at being more unexpected with my actions.”

Boost your brain without the drawbacks

Despite video game research being a recent phenomenon, it’s proven that video games do provide out-and-out brain gains—good news for those of us partial to a video game (or two, or three, or 400). It is possible, however, for them to suck us to an unhealthy degree, resulting in video game addiction.

With the advent of +3 agility and +3 intelligence, but -5 stamina, we must consider how to maintain a balanced relationship with video games. Dr. C. Shawn Green, a specialist in brain and cognitive studies, has stated to WIRED that there is no universal standard for healthy gaming behavior for different individuals in various life stages. He further outlines the necessity to contemplate both the immediate and long-term impacts of gaming when considering its impact on our lives.

This advice is difficult to follow because games are specifically designed to keep us playing. By staying aware of our own (and our families) gaming habits, taking time to do other things, and ultimately playing video games in a way that doesn’t unrestrictive keep us on the hedonic treadmill, it is possible to leverage gaming to be mentally stronger, faster, and smarter in real life.




Roshan Amiri is an advocate for the truth. He believes that it's important to speak out and fight for what's right, no matter what the cost. Amiri has dedicated his life to fighting for social justice and creating a better future for all.

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