Playing Computer Games – impact on health (part 2)

February 22, 2008 at 4:41 pm 2 comments

Mental Health


A well established negative consequence of computer game play in epileptic individuals is the risk of seizures in those who are photosensitive. Seizures are more likely to occur at times of high-intensity flickering images and scene changes, however, these seizures were a chance occurrence in the studies undertaken. Goldstein (2003) dismisses this affect as it is non-attributable to everyone but those who are photosensitive.

Computer games are not the only things that have a risk factor for photosensitive individuals. Some TV shows like MTV’s animations have flashing images and lights, so do most action movies and even mood beams (plastic characters which emit coloured lights) come with warnings for epileptics.

Brain Activity

Evidence has shown a change in brain activity while playing computer games which suggests a positive affect. The hormone and neurotransmitter, dopamine, has been found to be released in humans during computer game play through ‘goal-directed motor’ tasks in Koepp et al. (1998).

‘It has been suggested that such dopaminergic neurotransmission is involved in learning, reinforcement of behaviour, attention and sensorimotor integration, which is known as effective learning’ (Underwood et al. 2007)

This is an area which requires further exploration as it is relatively new in medical research.

In Japan, scientists and the university in Tohoku, in 2001 made claims that computer games stimulate areas of the brain which do not help in the development of the frontal lobe, which controls behaviour, memory, emotion and learning. Instead they stimulate areas which are devoted to movement and vision, which are not as crucial in a child’s development as the frontal lobe.

Researchers are concerned by this, including Professor Ryuta Kawashima who believes:

‘… children must be encouraged to practice basic mathematics, as well as learning reading and writing which also boost the frontal lobe. He is convinced that children who play video games excessively will not develop their frontal lobes and will consequently be more prone to violent acts, as they will be less able to control their behaviour.’ ( 2001)

Later in Japan in 2004, Brain Training for the DS was launched, a game based upon Kawashima’s research which targets the frontal lobe of the brain, the area of crucial importance in human development.

Research into the brain over the last quarter of a century has uncovered an important characteristic of the brain termed neuroplasticity. This is the ability of the brain to regenerate brain cells and effectively reorganise itself. A common metaphor for this is ‘rewiring’ but this does not accurately portray the brain’s malleability. The brain regenerates and reorganises itself dependant on the stimuli it receives.

This leads us onto the research of social psychologists who show that people from different cultures actually think differently. The environment we live in does affect how our brain develops. Steven Johnson (2005) picks up on this and discusses the digital divide between generations who have been brought up with technology and those who have not. The ‘digital natives’ simply think differently, they have been exposed to digital technology at a very young age and their brains have developed accordingly. This is a much debated topic in current talks between researchers from many fields.

Mental Health Games

Biofeedback and affective games are increasingly emerging in the market, which promote mental health in their players. Games such as Luminosity, Brain Training and Journey to Wild Divine encourage mental health through stimulating certain parts of the brain. Some promote learning and literacy, some cognitive ability and others help to control emotions and stress.

Other games are now being developed to promote mental health in teens and children who suffer from emotional issues like depression. Earthquake in Zipland is one such game which helps children to deal with their parents divorcing.

Violence & Aggression

Violent ad aggressive behaviour was mentioned previously in the physical health section of this text, however, the origin of this behaviour is mental health. Discussed above in brain activity is the affect a person’s environment has on the brain and subsequently behaviour development.

This involves not only the person’s daily activities but also their social experiences with family and friends and of course their childhood experiences.

There is much debate about violent and aggressive behaviour in children and it is easy for people to blame computer games, especially shooters. On the positive side, however, the point of catharsis has been mentioned. This point argues that computer games actually dispense of aggression and violence in the form of pent up energy, decreasing the need for people to act out in their behaviour.

Most children do understand the difference between games and real life, and violent behaviour is only developed in those with more vulnerable personalities. There is evidence in the US that the rate of violent crimes has actually decreased in the same duration of time that computer game playing has increased.

A lot of the assertions that computer games promote violent and aggressive behaviour are not based on empirical evidence, but the issue is more and more reflected upon as computer games are developing more realistic violent representations. There is currently an idea afloat on ‘backward causation’ which suggests that children who show aggressive behaviour may be more attracted to play computer games which simulate violent behaviour. Any evidence linking computer game play to the cause of aggressive behaviour is tainted by this backward causation notion. Additionally, most research is based upon fantasy or virtual violent behaviour and not real life behaviour, which nullifies the claim that games promote aggressive behaviour and supports the catharsis hypothesis.

Attention Spans

A common opinion of young adults today is that they are rude and have very short attention spans. They lose interest and patience easily when it comes to traditional teaching. When it comes to activities that do interest them, such as playing computer games, communicating on the internet or listening to music, they become completely engaged and can spend hours doing these activities. Prensky (2001) brings up a good point:

‘Is it that they can’t pay attention or that they don’t? … Traditional training and schooling just doesn’t engage them. It isn’t that they can’t pay attention, they just choose not to.’

While on the subject of attention spans, within the recent decade, two syndromes have emerged; attention deficit disorder (ADD) and attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD), which was known previously as hyperactivity. Both of these disorders are diagnosed in a vast number of young children and many are prescribed medication for treatment. The diagnosis of many children is not always correct as symptoms can be confused with current digital native behaviour, for example, multitasking, doing a lot of things at one time may seem like the child can not concentrate on one thing at a time for a prolonged period.

‘Determining whether a child’s attention deficit is a result of illness or of boredom is not always easy, and we don’t always get it right. But even when we do, interestingly enough, it is video games – the holders of even these children’s attention – that are increasingly used to retrain children’s brains and help them concentrate…’ (Prensky 2001)


Prensky in the previous quote picks up on the fact that computer games are now more and more being used for therapy of disorders which are thought to be initially related to the play of computer games. There are games which promote focus and concentration skills in children, just like there are games for all kinds of health, physical and mental, issues.

Computer games can not only be used as a therapeutic activity, but it is becoming increasingly known of their use within therapy sessions with children. For example, they can be used as a form of ice-breaker between therapist and patient, as they create a social plane on which the two can communicate. They can also make it easier for therapists to receive cooperative behaviour from patients, as the child is more likely to accept the therapist, thinking they are ‘cool’ and ‘with’ the technology trends. Not only can computer games be used in these ways, as an ‘ice-breaker and rapport-builder’, but they can also create a situation which enables the therapist to deduce the child’s cognitive and behavioural performance, including; problem solving abilities, their ability to predict consequences and their actions prior to them, the ways in which they release aggressive energies, their level of control, they way they deal with winning or losing, their enjoyment of cognitive activities, their visual working memory and their hand-eye coordination, and also the ways in which they organise and strategise their objectives.


When it comes to assessing the effects of computer game play on health, both physical and mental, one must be aware that this is a relatively new field which is being researched by people from many different industries. A lot of studies carried out are not based on empirical evidence and it is difficult to deduce anything for certain without concrete evidence. Press bias further distorts from the reality and the emergence of new types of computer games nullifies previous claims, as these were made on traditional game genres.

Of course it is given that when health is concerned, a balanced lifestyle is the way forward. Parents should be encouraging their children to take part in physical activities outside, just like everyone is encouraged to exercise and engage with the outdoors. However, just because people spend some time of the day indoors playing computer games, does not necessarily mean they are doing something detrimental to their health.

The director general of Entertainment and Leisure Software Publishers Association (ELSPA), Roger Bennett, commented in an interview against claims of computer games causing brain damage, back in 2001:

“For too long now, our industry has been the target of ill-informed criticism and scaremongering… We want to help those who weren’t brought up on computer games to understand this exciting new medium and the part that it can play in a healthy balance of learning and leisure activities for all age groups.”

Communities have been forming over the past couple of decades, as this topic has been increasingly discussed, and groups such as the Serious Games Initiative and the Games for Health conferences have been providing insight into this area, with research, development projects and services.

Author: Alexandra Matthews, Gaming & Learning

Copyright Gaming & Learning 2008

Entry filed under: Games, Interaction, Social Impact. Tags: , , , , , , , .

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2 Comments Add your own

  • 1. kadidid  |  February 22, 2008 at 6:32 pm

    very interesting information. I have always feel that kids and adults (like me) too are spending way too much time in front of our PCs.

  • 2. Hassan  |  February 24, 2008 at 5:36 pm

    Yes, but playing the games continously for 5 hours will blow up your mind. LOL


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The purpose of this blog is to provide insight into the impact of computer games and pop culture, and effective ways of incorporating the positive surplus into learning experiences.

Please feel free to add comments and email me with any queries. I am also interested in relevant project collaboration.

Name: Alexandra Matthews
Location: UK

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