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[Book Review] Prejudice and misinformation against gaming debunked

Sept. 4, 2021 - 16:01 By Yang Sung-jin
“Video Gaming and the Brain” By Lee Kyoung-min (Monsbooks)
All work and no play makes Jack a dull boy. Many conservative policymakers and parents in China and South Korea beg to differ: All study and no game playing makes their kids smart boys and girls.

Since 2011, Korea has maintained a sort of nightly gaming curfew for youngsters under the “shutdown law.” Amid long-running disputes, the government announced last week it would abolish the regulation. China, meanwhile, stepped up its crackdown on gaming, banning children under the age of 18 from playing online games for more than three hours a week, citing concerns about gaming addiction.

Is playing PC or mobile games really destructive? In “Video Gaming and the Brain,” published by Monsbooks, renowned neurologist Lee Kyoung-min at Seoul National University’s college of medicine stresses the role of play in enhancing learning.

Lee says play is not a concept on the opposite side of learning or labor, but many people tend to miss a crucial point -- a mix of play and study has long been the key innovation driver for human kind -- by holding a binary view that the two clash with one another.

In the book, Lee summarizes a slew of the latest findings in cognitive science to explain how the brain works when people play games and why it can be positively used to enhance learning and bring other beneficial effects.

As with other human behaviors, playing games affects the immense neural networks in the brain, and this type of change in synapses is cited as evidence for the brain’s elasticity, which is closely linked to the process of learning.

Lee says that people use their brains “quite a lot” when playing games, constantly drawing up strategies to parry surprise attacks or discover hidden enemies. “Unless people pay too much neurological opportunity cost by playing games excessively, video games help activate synapses that are less or rarely used in an interesting way,” he says.

Those who compare playing games to addictions like smoking and illegal substances point to a 1998 study in Nature that playing video games releases the feel-good neurotransmitter dopamine.

Lee cautions that a high level of dopamine released when playing video games cannot justify a view that games are as addictive as illegal narcotics. When we eat delicious foods or go on a date, the level of dopamine shoots up 30 percent to 50 percent higher than average in normal times. And playing video games generates a similar or less spike in dopamine. This is a far cry from some 1,200 percent spike in the level of dopamine for the intake of illegal drugs.

Lee introduces a host of studies on positive effects of game play. For instance, video games often require instant feedback and strong attention from users. The need to readjust individual moves in response to other players enhances the activation of diverse cognitive processes in the brain, including the executive function and self-reflective metacognition.

Other benefits in playing games include better multitasking, razor-sharp attention to specific information and an improved ability of analyzing a situation and resolving a problem.

Lee attempts to debunk widespread misperceptions about the side effects of gaming. For example, studies based on functional magnetic resonance imaging brain-scanning technology show that there is no difference in activated areas in the brain between those who have played “violent” video games and the control group. There is no conclusive scientific evidence that violent video games tend to lower the empathy of players, either.

Lee, however, does not approve of reckless and excessive gaming. “Playing video games a lot does not necessarily help improve our cognitive ability, as excessive play can lead to side effects such as addiction.”

With the advent of the metaverse -- a convergence of reality and cyberspace -- games are increasingly becoming a venue for new types of communities. World of Warcraft, a massively multiplayer online game from the scandal-laden Blizzard, offers what is called “together alone” space, in which players feel they are together with many others in the same place and yet go about their own ways in a loosely connected community -- like reading a book in a busy coffeehouse.

The proliferation of online-based human relations is accelerating, and a growing number of people forge networks inside games. As this phenomenon inevitably generates some side effects, it is important to heed proper in-game interactions and help provide accurate information and education about gaming, Lee argues, adding that “the easiest and the most recommended way is to play games together.” This may be a good piece of advice to parents who want to make their game-playing kids smart boys and girls.