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Too Much Video Game Time May Soon Be Considered A Mental Disorder

December 29, 2017 | 5,198 views
Since the transition from arcade to home entertainment began 40 years ago, video games have been blamed for a host of ills, both for the gamers who love them and for the society that they ostensibly mirror. As video game graphics grew increasingly realistic in the late 1990s, detractors began to loudly criticize the content of video games, and the subject of virtual violence possibly inciting real world incidents became a flashpoint. The hysteria surrounding video game violence has mostly subsided, but concerns about how video games impact your brain remain. 

There are rumblings that the World Health Organization (WHO) plans on weighing in on the always controversial subject of video games. A recently released beta draft for the WHO’s upcoming 11th International Classification of Diseases defines “gaming disorder” as a mental health condition that is characterized by an impaired control over the amount of time spent gaming, prioritizing video games over other interests and an escalation in gaming despite negative consequences. 

In order to meet the criteria for gaming disorder, the pattern of addictive behavior has to be evident over at least 12 months, but does not have to be continuous. The diagnosis can be made in a shorter time frame if the behaviors exhibited are particularly severe. 

Video games are often criticized for desensitizing the players, especially children, to violence and prurient themes but it is worth noting their role in cognitive function and brain health is actually quite complex. Studies suggest the video games may improve attention span and focus. Benefits to selective attention, divided attention, sustained attention and peripheral visual attention have all been noted in multiple studies. 

Visuospatial skills refer to your ability to perceive the spatial relationship between objects. Some brain regions directly related to visuospatial and navigational skills are increased in video game players, and research suggests such skills may be enhanced in regular players. 

Skill acquisition is an area where video games seem to provide some benefits, and in this case the benefits improve after regular playing. Researchers concluded that "It is likely that the exposure to a task first leads to an increase of activity in the associated regions, but ultimately, as the performance improves after repeated exposures, less cortical resources are needed for the same task."

While potentially leading to improvements in areas of attention, cognitive control, visuospatial skills and more, the downside of video games may be their effect on reward-processing areas of your brain. Such impulse control disorders akin to nonsubstance addictions such as gambling is the focus of the WHO “gaming disorder” classification. 

What's interesting is that researchers have noted distinct differences in the brains of those addicted to video games as compared to professional and expert gamers, differences that persisted even after controlling for the amount of time spent playing video games. The neural patterns displayed by addicted video game players were indicative of an unbalanced reward system in the brain.

Overall, video games can be an entertaining hobby with the potential to offer some benefits to your brain, but those benefits must be weighed against the risks of playing, such as addiction and exposure to violence. Some of this can be tempered by choosing nonviolent games.  

If you have a passion for video games there are ways to protect yourself. Two of the major dangers of video gaming are blue light generating screens and the electromagnetic fields (EMFs) produced by electronic devices. It is essential to block your exposure to blue light while doing so and to install programs that automatically lower the color temperature of your screen. If you play video games on your TV, be sure to wear blue-blocking glasses. Consider using a wired controller rather than the wireless models, disabling the device’s Wi-Fi and standing up rather than sitting during game play. Most importantly, make sure you limit the time spent playing and balance it with other more active and socially engaging pursuits.

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