Why should I stop playing video games?

Neurologist about games"No learning success without addiction potential"

Julia Macher: Diego Redolar, when I sit in front of the screen with a console or a joystick: What am I most likely to mutate into - an invincible heroine who fights her way through fantastic worlds with superpowers - or a zombie?

Diego Redolar: Depending on how you use the game, you can transform into either one or the other. If you miss other activities such as exercising or meeting other people because of the video game, then you can become lonely. There is a particular danger with online games in which you build up a social network that only consists of fellow players and not of people with whom you also interact in reality. That could actually turn you into a zombie.

Makers: This is currently a major point of contention, especially in families with children. How many hours of screen can I have? One or two hours a day? Once or twice a week? Is there such a thing as a golden rule?

Redolar: More important than the question of "How much?" is the question of whether the children forego other activities because of this. If, because of the computer games, they stop wanting to go out, stop seeing their friends or stop reading - that's not good. But if they want to continue doing other things that are essential for their development - sport, for example, stimulates the growth of neurons in the hippocampus - then two hours at the console or on the computer are no problem.

"The industry has perfected the reward principle"

Makers: If I give my son the choice "tablet or human-annoy-you-don’t", he’s guaranteed to make the first choice. You are leading a research project in Barcelona in which you and your team will explore what happens in the brain during video gaming. What makes digital games so much more attractive than analog games?

Redolar: Computer games are designed and designed in such a way that we like them, that we find them exhilarating and rewarding. If we observe a brain in a resting state, as soon as someone is gambling we see how the neural networks that are responsible for reinforcement and reward are activated. This also happens with board games, but not nearly as much. Because behind computer games there is a powerful industry that has perfected this reward principle in recent years. Then there is the cognitive level: Today's computer games enable - for example in sports or shooter games - spatial experience and interaction with the environment. This activates areas of the brain that other games simply cannot stimulate.

Makers: What does that do to my brain? Does that change it?

Redolar: Yes. In a research project in 2017, we evaluated all existing studies on the subject and saw that there is indeed a connection between the cognitive and neural levels: the regions of the brain that are important for concentration, spatial comprehension or memory function differently when someone is playing. We were particularly surprised by the structural changes, i.e. the fact that new connections are created between individual brain regions or the size of some areas has changed. This shows how important video games can be in training your brain.

Addictive behavior like cocaine addicts

Makers: Which areas grow while playing?

Redolar: There are studies that show that three-dimensional games, in which players have to orientate themselves in a room, stimulate the growth of the hippocampus, the area that is responsible for memory. The so-called dorsolateral prefrontal cortex, part of the frontal lobe of the cerebral cortex, also changes its structure: This is the most rational part of our brain. This region is very important for cognitive control or for decision making.

Makers: That all sounds pretty good, computer games can boost brain performance. Then what speaks against unrestrained daddling?

Redolar: When you throw everything in the balance, I actually believe that the positives outweigh the odds. But everything has two sides: We have also seen that the structure of the reward center and thus the addictive behavior can change - in the same way as it happens with cocaine addicts. That's why game addiction is now a recognized disease.

The neurologist and games researcher Diego Redolar (Diego Redolar)

Makers: Wouldn't it be theoretically possible to separate them? So designing computer games that train the brain but aren't addictive?

Redolar: That’s next to impossible. Because the reward principle is necessary for the learning process. The more one aims at the - potentially addictive - activation of the reward center, the more the cognitive abilities develop. That is also the reason why many classic brain training programs have failed. They just don't motivate enough: without potential for addiction, there is no learning success.

But why in the end some people become addicted and others not: That is one of the great neurobiological research questions. On the one hand it probably has to do with the genes, on the other hand with the environment or possible traumatic experiences. Addiction is a complex phenomenon in which many factors play a role.

"Our brains are guaranteed to look different than they do now"

Makers: According to a study from 2018, young people in Germany play an average of 103 minutes on a computer, tablet or mobile phone, in Spain it is a few minutes more - and the trend is rising. If the brains actually change as a result of gaming: What will our brains look like in 50, 60 or 100 years?

Redolar: That is a very exciting question. Because our nervous system and especially the cerebral cortex are extremely plastic: the individual areas can assume very different functions. In the case of digital natives, for example, the areas that coordinate thumb and index finger are more strongly represented. You have more neurons that are responsible for this. Why? Simply because they use those two fingers more often. In 50 years' time, the use of the new media will not have changed evolution - it takes a very long time for acquired skills to be reflected in the genome or for selection to actually take place. But our brains are guaranteed to look different than they do now.

Makers: If we move more and more in digital worlds, will we still need the real world? Even now, the two seem to merge more and more, as computer games work with sensors and the virtual worlds are becoming more and more real.

Redolar: I think that can actually be dangerous. If, instead of going for a walk in the forest, we lock ourselves in in the living room due to lack of time or laziness and prefer to experience the forest walk virtually, we have a problem.

"The brain only functions in contact with reality"

Makers: More contact with the real world - that is what a number of cultural and natural scientists are now demanding. Why is it so important to touch a real tree when the virtual one feels - almost - as good?

Redolar: That is evolutionary. Many of the neural networks that we as scientists research, many of our cognitive functions, can only be understood in the context of human development. Our brain structure is the result of the living conditions of our animal ancestors and has evolved in response to the environment over hundreds of thousands of years. Conversely, this means that the brain only functions properly in contact with reality.

Makers: You yourself spend a lot of time in the gaming world because of your job. Do you also notice the addiction potential in yourself - or do you come back to the real world without any problems?

Redolar: I'm actually not a classic gamer. As a child I also played, but very moderately, maybe once a week. My interest in digital games is purely professional. It started with a doctoral thesis, and then we gradually built up our research focus - which was still quite new at the time. By the way, what impressed me the most is not the neural or functional effects of computer games on our brain, but the gaming world itself: the industry behind it, the influence of professionals, the gigantic number of followers, that some gamers have. The phenomenon that hundreds of thousands watch others gamble on YouTube is fascinating. What is happening in the brains of the audience - that would be worth doing some research on your own!

Statements made by our interlocutors reflect their own views. Deutschlandfunk does not adopt the statements of its interlocutors in interviews and discussions as its own.