Braaaaaaains: The New “Threat” of Videogames to our Minds

20 May

So today’s example of scare-mongering “science” comes to us from Canada (via the Telegraph in the UK), where someone has apparently “proven” that “Call of Duty increases risk of Alzheimer’s disease,” according to the headline. When added to a recent thread on the DiGRA list about Philip Zimbardo’s current speaking tour about how the “greatest threat” to young men today is videogame playing (because it turns them violent), this has me banging my head into the wall, the desk, and any other object in close proximity. (Maybe that’s why videogame playing is linked to brain damage… because articles like this make us give ourselves cranial trauma…)

Okay, so Zimbardo first. Zimbardo is a well-known psychologist with published books, one of which–The Lucifer Effect–I have taught to my class because it is an example of what not to do in psychology. Zimbardo, for those of you at home, is the man who came up with the Stanford Prison Experiment which traumatized several young men at Stanford in the 1970s (there’s even a documentary on it) because when it started to get out of control (the “guards” were psychologically torturing the “prisoners”), Zimbardo let it continue for a few days until someone else called him out on it.

Yes, that’s the man I want to trust to evaluate the psychological impact of anything. But even assuming that he learned from his experience and became a more ethical psychologist (which, to be honest, by all accounts he has), he has done no research into videogames whatsoever and is simply capitalizing on his fame in order to state opinions which people then trust as true, because that’s ethical.

Putting Zimbardo aside in favor of today’s article about Alzheimer’s, let’s take a look at the actual article, rather than the fear-mongering title. Nowhere in the article does it say that Call of Duty causes or increases a risk of Alzheimer’s. What it says is that videogame players–not Call of Duty players, either, mind you–use a different part of their brains to manage three-dimensional spatial interactions on screen than non-videogame players. This part of the brain is called the caudate nucleus and is used for voluntary movement and goal-directed actions, which means that gamers understand gaming as a goal-completion activity (as opposed to non-gamers, who don’t think about it the same way).

Apparently people who rely heavily on the caudate nucleus “normally” “have less grey matter.” Specifically, “The Canadian team said if action gamers have less grey matter, as people who rely on the caudate nucleus normally do, then they may be more prone to mental illness.”

Let’s parse that. People with an overdeveloped caudate nucleus “normally” have less grey matter than people who don’t. Gamers rely on their caudate nucleus. There is no statement in there that says that gamers actually have less grey matter; it says “If action gamers have less grey matter.” Which they apparently do not know whether gamers have or do not have.

Okay. Next step. People with less grey matter in the hippocampus (the site of spatial memory) have a higher correlation “with neurological and psychological disorders including dementia and depression.” That means that if someone has a reduced hippocampus, they might have an increased risk of a disorder (which could include Alzheimer’s). One of the researchers, Dr. Gregory West, summarizes: “This means people who play a lot of action video games could have reduced hippocampal integrity, which is associated with increased risk for neurological disorders such as Alzheimer’s disease.” Let’s repeat that–“Could have reduced hippocampal integrity.” Not “do have,” “could have.”

What the research does not show is whether or not gamers in fact do have “reduced hippocampal integrity,” which means that the study has not, in fact, suggested that gamers are at risk for anything. It has only “proven” (sort of) that gamers use the caudate nucleus when playing more than non-gamers.

West also says that “For more than a decade now, research has demonstrated action video game players display more efficient visual attention abilities. Our current study again confirms this notion.” So this means that there are benefits to gaming, as well. And yes, gamers have differently shaped brains from “normal” people:

Previous research has also shown brains of people who regularly play computer games differ from those of infrequent gamers.

A study in teenagers showed the “reward hub”, which is involved in addiction, was larger in regular players.

Brain scans showed a larger ventral striatum, which is the hub of the brain’s reward system, in regular gamers. Playing computer games has been linked to a range of effects from addiction to improved reasoning.

That’s not really all that surprising, since our brains are plastic (as in, they change, not made of petroleum-based material) and adjust to our regular behaviors. Our brains’ structure changes as our habits change, so that we adapt to what it is we do most. This is normal.

So at the end of the article, all we know is that gamers use their caudate nucleus more than non-gamers when playing a game, and that they have a larger ventral striatum. What we absolutely do not know is whether this is good, bad, or neutral information, and we absolutely do not know that gamers–Call of Duty or otherwise–are at increased risk for pretty much anything (Alzheimer’s included) except carpal tunnel.

What this all boils down to is that media reporting–and, apparently, popular psychology–needs to stop leaping to conclusions not at all based in the scientific evidence being proffered. Just like with climate change (which is real, no matter what congress says) and GMOs (which do not cause health risks, unlike pesticides and certain preservatives) and vaccines (which do not cause autism and might in fact contribute to fending off some forms of leukemia). Videogames are no more–or less–harmful than any other form of popular media, including movies, television, comic books, the internet at large, books, poetry, theater, murals, sculpture, and classical art.

Oh, and education. (Well, maybe education for standardized testing really is causing harm, so I take that one back…)