How Playing Video Games Affects Your Body And Brain

In 'Fortnite: Battle Royale,' 100 players have a showdown to see who can be the last one left alive. Lenscap Photography/Shutterstock

Video games are one of the most popular and commonly enjoyed forms of entertainment of our time, yet there's a lot of controversy around them.

The World Health Organization recently decided to add "gaming disorder" to its official list of mental health conditions, stating that gaming behavior could qualify as problematic if it interferes significantly in other areas of people's lives.

Some people have also suggested there are links between playing video games and violent behavior, especially in the wake of tragic events like the school shooting in Parkland, Florida.

"I'm hearing more and more people say the level of violence on video games is really shaping young people's thoughts," President Donald Trump said after the Parkland shooting.

President Obama had similar questions after the Sandy Hook school shooting in Newton, Connecticut.

"Congress will fund research into the effects that violent video games have on young minds," he said at the time (while also calling for policies that would ban the purchase of military-style weapons and improve background checks for firearm purchases in order to curb gun violence).

But many other people have pointed out that some types of games offer benefits, including the potential to improve people's ability to pay attention and process visual information.

For all of these reasons, people have lots of questions surrounding what science says about the effects of video games. Do games cause violence or aggression? Are they addictive? Are they healthy ways to relax and de-stress? Could they improve brain processing speed?

Similar questions have arisen after every new form of media appeared — including television, movies, pop music, comics, and even books.

Fortunately, there's a fair amount of research that about how video games affect our brains and bodies. Here are the most important takeaways.

Many kids and adults play video games — they're not just of interest to young men.

According to the Entertainment Software Association's (ESA) 2017 survey:

  1. 1. 65% of households have at least one member who plays games three hours a week or more, and the average gamer is 35 years old.

  2. 2. Of the "gaming" population, there are more adult women (31%) than boys under 18 (18%).

    3. Of people who play video games, 59% are male and 41% are female.

    Some researchers are concerned that excessive game playing could be a form of addictive behavior, though this is controversial.

  3. The World Health Organization recently decided to add "gaming disorder" to its list of mental health conditions in the update of the International Classification of Diseases (ICD), released June 18. 

The definition of the condition states that gaming behavior could be a disorder if it meets three characteristics: if a person loses control over their gaming habits, if they start to prioritize gaming over many other interests or activities, and if they continue playing despite clear negative consequences.

This would put gaming on a similar level as other behaviors that can become problematic if people lose control over them, though the concept of behavioral addiction is controversial in the first place.

Some researchers are uncertain about calling gaming "addictive," since problematic gaming may in some cases serve as a dysfunctional coping mechanism for people struggling with depression or anxiety.

Some studies link playing violent games to slight increases in aggression — though aggression is not the same as violence.

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One review of research by the American Psychological Association found that people who played violent video games were very slightly more likely to engage in aggressive behavior (actions like playing a loud sound that people they were competing against could hear over an audio system). However, the APA said playing games was not enough to cause aggression.

Other studies have found no link between game violence and violent or aggressive thoughts. Some researchers, like APA member Chris Ferguson, have even disputed findings connecting games to aggression, saying many of the studies that drew such conclusions had methodological problems.

Either way, aggressive behavior is not the same as violence.

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