Exploring Prolonged Video Gaming’s Impact on Players and Potential Methods to Mitigate Harm

Here, we explore some of the evidence provided by experts concerning prolonged gaming’s impact on the brain and body, and how gamers can better manage the effects.

With the increasing popularity of eSports and video games, the question of what to do to take care of the players becomes more and more important. Now, there’s increasing attention being given to attempting to limit any potential adverse effects that prolonged spells of gaming can induce.

According to New Zoo, the eSports industry is expected to eclipse $1 billion in revenue this year and is expected to continue to grow thereafter. With it becoming such a valuable industry, the concerns around the drawbacks of playing video games for a long period of time are becoming more prominent.

Here, we’re exploring the effects of video games on the brain and the possible consequences that being a professional video game player can have. As well as this, we take a look at some solutions that have been suggested by experts to combat the effects of video gaming and burnout.

Arguments and findings on both sides

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Greg West, an associate teacher at the Université de Montréal, conducted a study that showed that playing action games will affect your brain on a structural level, as published by UdeM Nouvelles. The findings showed that long-time action game enthusiasts have less grey matter in their hippocampus, an important part of the brain that helps people orient themselves and remember past experiences. Someone with a damaged hippocampus is more at risk of developing brain diseases or illnesses, ranging from depression to Alzheimer’s.

It has also been demonstrated that playing video games can have a positive impact on how the brain works. An article published on the website Medical News Today says that video game players showed some improvements in several types of attention, such as sustained and selective attention. Marc Palaus and the rest of the team responsible for the review featured mentions that the regions of the brain responsible for attention are better in gamers compared to non-gamers.

An Oxford University study, as relayed by The Independent, suggested that, by playing games like Animal Crossing for four hours, “you will become a much happier human being.” Furthermore, an editorial put on CyberPsychology entitled ‘The Experience and Benefits of Game Playing’ says that the exercise of video gaming is proven to be efficient “in a number of therapeutic contexts.” This also means that the brains of people that play video games require less activation to stay functional while doing something mentally demanding. As detailed by the aforementioned Medical News Today piece written by Hannah Nichols, playing video games also increases the size and the functionality of the parts of the brain that impact visuospatial skills (a person’s ability to identify visual and spatial relationships between objects).

In regards to enjoyment and social interactions – two of the primary purposes of the entertainment medium – participants in a study by Jing Shi, Renwick, Turner, and Kirsh (2019), as published on Science Direct, admitted that playing video games was a meaningful and purposeful activity and that it holds a good place in several aspects of their life. For example, friendships were formed around video games and some of the participants discovered that they want to work in the video game industry.

An article released by BMC Psychology, by Kent Nordby, Ronny Andre Løkken and Gerit Pful briefly mentioned that some studies have found that too much video gaming is directly related to negative effects like lower psychosocial wellbeing (loneliness), poorer social skills, decreased academic achievement, increased inattention, and a decrease in verbal memory performance. With all that said, the research does conclude that these claims remain mixed and controversial.  

An article published on Psychology Today states that the rush of dopamine that comes with playing video games can lead to violent behaviours if the session is interrupted abruptly. The article depicts the story of Aiden, who played video games instead of hanging out with family due to family gatherings seemingly overwhelming him. After the nine-year-old was asked to turn off his game and go to sleep, this was met by a violent response.

So far, we’ve seen that playing video games has been found to affect brain structure, and some may experience consequences as a result of their gaming experience. Of course, several benefits of playing games have also been noted, particularly in regards to social and wellbeing needs. However, the portrait is not complete until we talk about the effects of video games on professional video game players and the phenomenon of burnout in eSport athletes.

The grind of being a professional player

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Professional gamers in the eSports industry are required to play their video game titles for an extended period of time every day. An eSport athlete will typically practice for nine hours each day, per Inven Global, with the team that they are on. Still, it isn’t uncommon to see the top players keep on practising beyond this time frame.

According to eSports journalist Richard Lewis, via CBS News, the best players can play video games for up to 14 hours per day. With that heavy schedule centred on playing games, the chances of physical problems like carpal tunnel, obesity, and visual decline occurring is increased. Jian ‘Uzi’ Zihao, a professional League of Legends player from China, was forced to retire from the game due to many health problems, as reported by ESPN.

Physical problems are not the only aches that someone who plays video games for regular, prolonged periods can experience. An eSports athlete is at increased risk of developing an addiction to gaming. As published in a piece by Richa Misra, Singh, and Singh (2020) on IGI Global, gaming addiction as a pattern of behaviour that’s characterised by impaired control over gaming, giving priority to gaming over other activities.

Player burnout

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While there is a lot of discussion around the impact of playing video games for a great deal of time each day, this doesn’t prevent the fact that the eSports scene is getting more and more attention worldwide. While the players are getting paid to do something that they love, this doesn’t mean that they are immune to suffering from fatigue or burnout.

Burnout is categorised by the World Health Organisation as a syndrome born from chronic stress in the workplace that is not being managed. Gaming burnout or gaming fatigue is said to be related to an increasing level of physical and emotional stress with a lack of rest. When someone is suffering from gaming fatigue, according to Esports Healthcare, they will experience mental or physical exhaustion, disinterest in activities that used to be enjoyable for them, and a decrease in their performance.

The problem with burnout in eSports is that it isn’t uncommon to see players have short careers as competitors, and will therefore retire young, even as young as their mid-20s. The decrease in performance can be a serious problem for eSports athletes as poor performances can end their career and cause further mental stress. In the last few years, many big names in the competitive video game industry, such as Yiliang Peter ‘Doublelift’ Peng, have stated that they had to take a leave to deal with stress and burnout, per eSports.net.

Possible solutions to the impacts of gaming

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With all of those problems and effects well-known, further brought into the spotlight by the ever-increasing prominence of the eSports industry, many experts have sought solutions.

When it comes to the effects of video games on the structure of the brain, such as its influence on the hippocampus, certain types of games might be more beneficial than others. Greg West, of the Université de Montréal, says that playing platform games, 3D platformers, and retro games like Super Mario 64 could positively affect the hippocampus and the brain.

The associate teacher stated that playing those types of games increases the grey matter in the hippocampus and improves other aspects of memory. Furthermore, he recommends that an eSports athlete or a gamer should prioritise their physical health because exercise will stimulate the hippocampus. Lastly, West suggests that anyone considering making video games an important part of their lives should know their APOE status due to the increased risk of developing Alzheimer’s.

To combat burnout, a gaming performance expert, Mr G. (Anonymous, 2021), tells us that infrastructures like schools, local organisations, and universities should teach children who want to become professional eSports athletes some valuable skills like emotion regulations, team dynamics, and focus. In our interview with Mr G., he also stated that up-and-coming talents should be educated better on the pressure that is going to be put on them and how to deal with all of this to try to avoid burnout.

In West’s eyes, as he explained in an interview with Outsider Gaming in 2021, the eSports scene improved when it comes to talking about mental or physical health and taking actions to ensure that the players are taken care of, but he says that there is always room to do better:

“We still have a very long way to go, though, because even though it’s better, we’re not at the end game yet. So this means we need more research, we need to understand the best practices we need to have because right now, a lot of the performance work is low hanging fruit for teaching people through nutrition-based sleep.”

He adds to this statement that the work being done right now started from nothing:

“We’re starting from ground zero, but in like five or six years, when the next wave has come in and they have all this training already in place, it’s then that we can take it to the next level. Things could go even deeper and harder into the sports science or the health and wellness of it, and that’s when we’re going to see the real things happen.”

In the end, playing video games for a long time will affect the way that the brain works and will have consequences, both positive and negative. While there is an ever-increasing understanding of possible solutions to control the impact of prolonged spells of gaming, eSport athletes are still very susceptible to burnout. As stated by Greg West above, a sports science approach needs to become the focus, just as it is in traditional sports.

To sign off, we’d like to offer our thanks to our two interviewees who offered insight and expertise on this topic.

Fabrice Samedy

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