Parents often complain that their children are spending increasing amounts of time playing computer-based video games. Kids get together and just sit in front of a computer or a television with a gaming console, and they do not talk to each. They just watch the screen, which is probably damaging to their eye sight. They don’t get out enough and do not get enough exercise. Etc.

What is all this video gaming doing to young brains?

Certainly, the mind is the product of its environment and devoting a lot of time to any one activity will induce changes in the brain. The question is: what changes does video gaming induce, are these changes beneficial or deleterious, and how do they affect behavior?

Growing scientific evidence demonstrates that the human brain dynamically changes in response to experience and to changes in the environment, a phenomenon that is known as “plasticity.” It is also believed that timing is crucial – our brains appear to be more susceptible to change early in our developmental lives. Thus, a world with vastly different technology driven demands, opportunities and challenges, is surely going to lead to brain changes: the brain of our children will be different from those of the generations who rode their bikes, jumped rope, and played sports in the backyard, rather than throwing a football with Madden NFL 09. 

There has been increasing interest on the possibility that video games may actually induce brain changes that lead to behavioral benefits. A number of applications of computer games have been developed for education and rehabilitation. At least anecdotally, individuals who have played a lot of video games using joy stick controllers in their youth are supposed to make better airline pilots when they grow-up. However, finding that familiarity with the motor skills required to operate a computer or a gaming console conveys advantages for the control of similar technology is not that surprising or exciting. We have long known that practice can make perfect.

A recent study by Daphne Bavelier and colleagues at the University of Rochester offers the intriguing suggestion that playing video games may not only be beneficial because of practicing specific skills, but may also enhance core functions of vision – something that has been classically viewed as immutable as an adult. These investigators have reported that playing certain action video games results in a significant improvement in “visual contrast sensitivity,” a measure of how well an individual is able to discern low-contrast targets.

Interestingly, it mattered what type of video game was played. The study group that showed enhancements in contrast sensitivity played “Unreal Tournament 2004” and “Call of Duty 2,” -- both fast-paced and action-oriented games. In contrast, control subjects played games like “The Sims 2,” a visual engaging game of social interactions which is much less demanding in terms of visual attention and visuo-motor coordination.

It seems likely, the study suggests, that the specific characteristics and demands of a video game induce different brain changes and thus promote different behavioral advantages. If action games that train visual scanning and visuo-motor coordination, like “Unreal Tournament 2004” and “Call of Duty 2” result in improved visual contrast sensitivity and improved fine motor coordination, perhaps games like “The Sims 2” or “Warcraft” may be beneficial in promoting empathy or social interaction skills. A careful scientific exploration of such issues may lead to the development of video games and technologies with targeted applications of different cognitive functions and even certain patient populations.

It is important to note that contrast sensitivity is only one measure of visual function. Assessing other measures (such as motion detection and luminance thresholds or critical flicker fusion frequency) may also reveal changes over time and as a function of the type of game. The findings raise the possibility of functional gains due to playing video games that would generalize to a vast number of tasks, and confer many specific advantages. If confirmed, maybe all of us will end up spending sometime playing certain video games.

It is appealing to envision video games being utilized in the rehabilitation of patients and the prevention of cognitive decline, promotion of brain fitness, and development of fundamental skills. However, more careful studies like those of Bavelier and colleagues are needed to realize such a goal. To date, much of the claims around this rapidly growing area of technology-supported medical interventions are insufficiently supported by scientific data.

In this context, a major advantage of video games is the fact that they can be made entertaining and engaging. Motivation is a powerful driver of brain plasticity. The highly realistic and engaging nature of these games allows the gamer to immerse themselves and “feel” like the simulation is really real (e.g. the intensity of combat). Such realistic engagement and the resulting enjoyment promotes brain changes.

Of course, a video game is not the same as the real thing. The motor plan to throw a football accurately (e.g. grip strength, depth perception, tracking the running receiver) versus the right sequences of touches on a game console are two different things. The development of systems that more realistically simulate motor actions and responses will probably be important.

It is likely that the functional impact of the brain plasticity induced by greater technology dependence will be different for different behaviors. For example, playing video games will train certain visuo-motor skill but also affect social development and interpersonal relation skills.

Parents may wish that their kids talked, rather than texted their friends, and played soccer in the backyard, rather than on a gaming console. But technology-based communications, entertainment, and video games are here to stay. The challenge is to learn enough about the brain changes induced by different technologies and types of games in order to be able to guide them, enhancing functions that result in a functional and behavioral advantage for each individual. If done properly, the motivating, almost addictive, nature of these technologies, may actually prove a very valuable ally to achieve desired goals in education, medical treatment, and rehabilitation.

Are you a scientist? Have you recently read a peer-reviewed paper that you want to write about? Then contact Mind Matters co-editor Gareth Cook, a Pulitzer prize-winning journalist at the Boston Globe, where he edits the Sunday Ideas section.