What Gaming Does to Your Brain—and How You Might Benefit

To stay away from Azeroth—which is to remain unsubscribed from Blizzard Entertainment’s enduring MMORPG, World of Warcraft—is no simple task. In fact, the gaming community has long (and only half-jokingly) referred to the orc- and elf-filled game as “World of Warcrack.”

As somebody who, over the past 14 years, has racked up more than 600 days played, the pull of WoW’s constant new dungeons, raids, and battlegrounds is something I can attest to. When I’m at a loose end, the first thing that comes to mind is logging on my level-60 rogue. And if I don’t play for an extended period of time, I’ll, quite literally, see WoW in my dreams. On a conscious and subconscious level, I can’t quite escape.

Video game “addiction,” though, isn’t solely relegated to WoW; it’s cross-genre and cross-platform. Neither is addiction the only neurological and psychological side effect of video games. So how, scientifically, do video games—from MMORPGs to shooters and RPGs—affect our brains? And despite the drawbacks, can the brain benefit from video games?

Addiction and Our Mushy, Fun-Loving Brains

When the subject of how video games affect us crops up, the first thing that comes to mind is video game addiction—a field that’s being increasingly studied by psychologists and neuroscientists alike and is often played up for headlines more than it is an actual mental health threat on its face. “Roughly speaking, there are no big differences between video game addiction and other addictions,” says Marc Palaus, who holds a PhD in cognitive neuroscience from the Open University of Catalonia. “One key aspect to understand how addictions work is the reward system of the brain. The reward system mediates how pleasant stimuli (such as the presence of food, water, social interaction, sexual contact, or video games in this case) act as positive reinforcers for behavior.” Once our brains have been exposed to something pleasurable, we often want (and then set out to get) more—and video games are certainly no exception.

Considering WoW’s longevity and impressive following (at the time of writing, there are around 5 million monthly players), it’s no surprise that DIY support communities have surfaced. /r/nowow, a subreddit of over 1,000 members, functions as a safe space where struggling WoW addicts can discuss broken relationships, wasted time, hindered education, and relapses.

It’s a place I’ve personally found reassuring and frightening in equal measure—the highly engaging and enjoyable world-away-from-our-own-world, with its daily and weekly quests and never-ending updates, has sucked many a gamer in.

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Lee Chambers, an environmental psychologist I spoke to, is someone whose story is similar to those posting on /r/nowow. “I found World of Warcraft in my second year of university, and sadly at a time when I was struggling with my mental health,” he said. “The game gave me the social connection I needed, but I became dependent on it as my mental health became worse, and I became embroiled in the game and avoided life, leading to me being taken home by my parents after isolating myself for weeks.” Thankfully, Chambers has since come out the other side.

Fortnite, the King of Quick Dopamine Hits

The high-octane environments of shooters are a world apart from the slower-paced grind of an MMORPG like WoW, Final Fantasy XIV, and Elder Scrolls Online. And it’s Epic Games’ Fortnite, the candy-hued survival shooter, that’s particularly interesting when it comes to video games and the brain, not least because it’s become a cultural phenomenon, especially among young gamers whose brains are still developing.

At its core, Fortnite is a quick-fire and inherently repeatable game, with co-op, battle royale, and sandbox modes catering to different play styles. (Fortnite Battle Royale matches last about 20 minutes, but players can be eliminated shortly after games begin, depending on their skill level and/or luck.) The thrill of staying alive in pressured, digital life-or-death scenarios, in addition to obtaining pop-culture-referencing skins and post-ironic dances, can release dopamine—one of the brain’s neurotransmitters. And after a match in Fortnite, the more dopamine that your brain releases and the more pleasure you feel, the greater your desire to play another round.

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