Computer games and the brain: A summary with two key studies

Travis DixonBiological Psychology, Cognitive Psychology, Developmental Psychology, Key Studies, Studies and Theories

How can hours and hours of video game experience affect our brain? And why do we need to know? (Image from

In this post we look at the positive effects of playing computer games by looking at how it might affect the brain, both in young and old people.

We know from many MRI studies that our brain changes as a result of experience – this is called neuroplasticity. Therefore, it’s not unrealistic to think that hours spent playing video games could have significant effects on important parts of the brain,

The dorsolateral PFC is a specific part of the prefrontal cortex (PFC) at the front, left outer side of the PFC. It is associated with working memory and other executive cognitive functions (i.e. higher level thinking).

like the hippocampus (associated with memory) and the prefrontal cortex. In particular, the dorsolateral prefrontal cortex is important because it has been linked with working memory and cognitive control. It might be that playing video games can improve brain function, which can improve cognition.

Key Study #1: Video game playing and the brain – a correlational study (Kuhn et al. 2014)

 This study gathered data on 152 teenagers (14 year olds). They measured how much time they spend playing video games and they also used MRI to measure their cortical thickness in various parts of the brain, including the dlPFC. The results showed a “robust positive association between cortical thickness and video gaming duration,” meaning that those kids that played more video games tended to have thicker dlPFCs (correlation = 0.30). The researchers conclude that these differences could explain findings in studies like Klingberg’s that show computer gaming can have a positive effective on working memory. An interesting (but maybe not surprising) finding from the study was that boys played video games more than girls and there were no boys who said they did not play video games. However, even after the researchers controlled for gender, age and parents’ education levels, the correlation still remained.

Video games and older people – using games to prevent Alzheimer’s

Understanding the effects of video gaming on the brain and cognition is important because video game addiction is a growing concern, especially for young people. However, it’s also important for older people, too. As we age our brains start to deteriorate and keeping our brain’s active could help delay or prevent diseases like Alzheimer’s and dementia. Video games could be used in this way and have been the subject of many studies.

Playing Super Mario 64 as an adult could help improve function in important parts of the brain and delay the onset of neurological diseases like Alzheimer’s.

Key Study #2: The effects of playing Mario Brothers on the hippocampus (West et al. 2017)

 This study randomly allocated participants to one of three conditions:

  • (a) playing Super Mario 64
  • (b) taking online piano lessons
  • (c) a control group that didn’t do any technology training.

They used MRI scans to measure their hippocampal volumes before and after six months of the study. The results showed that only the Super Mario group had a significant increase in grey matter in their hippocampi. They also showed an improvement in short-term memory tests and improvement in memory was correlated with increase in hippocampal grey matter. Interestingly, the music group had increases in their dlPFC and unfortunately the control group experienced a shrink in their hippocampal volumes. These results show more potential positive effects of computer gaming on the brain. The music condition can also show the value of technology to learn new things, which can also increase brain function in areas like the dlPFC.

Conclusions and Applications

  1. Technology and cognition (Cog HL Ext): The above studies could be used to support an explanation of how technology can affect cognition – they show how technology may improve function in specific parts of the brain that will help improve cognitive functions, like the hippocampus and memory and the dorsolateral PFC and working memory.
  2. Neuroplasticity (Bio approach): These studies demonstrate neuroplasticity – the brain’s ability to change and develop as a result of experience.
  3. Brain development and developing as a learner (Developmental Psych): We can see that playing video games as a kid (in Kuhn et al.’s study) could affect the developing brain, which might also affect their cognitive development and their development as a learner.

Critical Thinking Considerations

  • Kuhn et al.’s study is correlational. What are the limitations of drawing conclusions from studies like this? Can you think of alternative explanations for these results?
  • Can you think why the music condition in West et al.’s experiment had an increase in dlFC volume?