This Is Your Brain on a Videogame

If proponents of video and computer games are right, the generation that grew up honing its hand-eye coordination by shooting aliens in Halo should be starting to nail real-life aircraft-carrier landings right about … now. But while studies show that the games can improve visual and spatial skills—and that playing violent ones makes it harder to control anger, especially when someone goads or disses you—only now are scientists studying the games' overall effects on players' hearts and minds. Next week, at the Games for Health Conference in Baltimore, Carmen Russoniello of East Carolina University will report that three nonviolent puzzle and word computer games affect heart rates and brain waves in a way that suggests they might be used therapeutically, such as for treating high blood pressure or depression.

Russoniello assigned volunteers, ages 19 to 57, to either search the Web for articles or to play one of three games: Bejeweled 2, which taps visual and spatial skills; Bookworm Adventures, in which players make words out of Boggle-like arrays, and Peggle, a Pachinkolike aim-and-shoot game. After 15 minutes he wired them up to EEGs, which measure brain waves, and a heart monitor, and then he asked them to fill out questionnaires about their mood.

Compared with the group that searched for articles, the heart monitors showed, only Bejeweled (an untimed version) reduced physiological stress. But with all three, the players felt less fatigued than before the games, less "mentally confused," more vigorous, less angry, less depressed and less mentally tense. The different games affected each of these to varying degrees—Bejeweled increased vigor the most, for instance, while Peggle reduced mental tension the most. EEGs hint at what caused these feelings: Peggle upped brain waves linked to a desire to engage with life, while Bejeweled reduced brain waves associated with avoiding and withdrawing, and Bookworm got brain waves in sync, a state associated with relaxation.

Now for the caveats, starting with the fact that the games' maker, PopCap, paid for the study (though Russoniello says it had no say in the design or data analysis). More problematic, the data are silent on whether the mood and brain changes last more than a few minutes; in contrast, mental training such as meditation seems to bring permanent beneficial brain changes. The challenge now for videogame manufacturers itching to make what are essentially health claims: showing that the games reduce stress and improve mood better than a good book, a stroll in a garden, a movie or any other activity that tickles your brain waves.