Video games are fun, challenging and sometimes hard to put down. But are they good for you? Or do they rot your brain, like some people say?
In this episode, Molly and cohost Colden (along with sassy alien hero Fuzzbutt Picklestar) explore how video games affect your brain, for better or worse.
Plus, we look at other technologies that adults used to think were bad for kids, like novels and the radio. And an extra mysterious Mystery Sound!
SUBJECT: You're listening to Brains On! where we're serious about being curious.
SUBJECT: Brains On! is supported in part by a grant from the National Science Foundation.
[VIDEO GAME MUSIC PLAYING]
COMPUTER: You've just reached level 4, journey through deep expanse asteroid field. Fuel supply is limited.
SUBJECT: Oh, no!
[LASER GUN FIRING]
FUZZBUTT: Take that, nasty asteroids. Nobody messes with me. Fuzzbutt Picklestar on her quest for Earth.
SUBJECT: That's right, Fuzzbutt. We're going to make it to Earth this time.
COMPUTER: Asteroid debris direct hit. Damage to engine. Must repair mechanics mid-flight.
SUBJECT: It's OK. I have a reserve for this. If I just--
SUBJECT: Honey, time's up.
SUBJECT: Mom! I just got to level 4. I've literally never made it this far.
SUBJECT: I'm sure you remember the deal we made.
SUBJECT: Oh, man.
COMPUTER: Game paused.
FUZZBUTT: Wait. Wait. Wait. Don't pause.
SUBJECT: Hold on. You know I paused?
FUZZBUTT: Yeah, how could I not? Look at me, I'm frozen midair doing nothing.
SUBJECT: This is so cool.
FUZZBUTT: If by cool you mean it's cool to leave an alien floating in suboptimal temperatures in the bowels of an asteroid field, then, yeah, it's cool. Now, how about you hit Play, and let's see if we can get me out of this disaster in one piece.
SUBJECT: I wish I could, but I reached my time limit for this weekend.
FUZZBUTT: Excuse me? You have a time limit on my life?
SUBJECT: Trust me. There is nothing I'd rather be doing than sitting here on this couch, using my nimble fingers and 8-year-old deduction skills to help you muddle through this hostile space environment. But my mom says if I play any longer, it might rot my brain.
FUZZBUTT: Rot your brain?
SUBJECT: Rot my brain.
SUBJECT: Rot your brain.
SUBJECT: Rot your brain.
SUBJECT: Rot your brain.
SUBJECT: Rot your brain.
SUBJECT: Rot your brain.
SUBJECT: Rot your brain.
SUBJECT: Rot your brain.
FUZZBUTT: Well, now I feel bad. Am I really contributing to your mental decay?
SUBJECT: No. Or, I mean, maybe if I play too much? Or maybe it's just something my mom says? Or, wait, a lot of adults say that. I don't know.
FUZZBUTT: Aha! A quandary for the ages. Fuzzbutt Picklestar loves an earthly challenge.
[BRAINS ON! THEME MUSIC PLAYING]
MOLLY: You're listening to Brains On! from APM Studios. I'm Molly Bloom. And with me today is Colden from Buffalo, New York. Hi, Colden.
COLDEN: Hi, Molly.
MOLLY: Colden, you're here because you asked us a question about video games. What was that question?
COLDEN: Do video games rot your brain? And if not, why do people say this?
MOLLY: So how did you come up with this question?
COLDEN: When I was younger, my parents, every time if I play too long, they'd be like, get off or your brain will be rotten. And I'm like, what?
COLDEN: And they were like, video games rot your brain. So I sent in this question when there was COVID so I could, like, find out in case because I was pretty bored during COVID.
MOLLY: Yeah. There was not a lot else to do besides play video games, so I get it. So do you play a lot of video games now?
COLDEN: Yeah. I play in the morning a lot when my mom's home.
MOLLY: Like, before school?
COLDEN: Yeah. I play, like, Roblox, Minecraft. I play a lot of variety of games. I play, like, sports games, like, games where you create stuff, games where you have to work as a team. It helps me work better with people.
MOLLY: So it sounds like you're getting a lot out of the games you play. So what other things do you like to do besides playing video games?
COLDEN: I like playing soccer, basketball, and singing obnoxiously.
Question for you, would you rather watch TV or play a video game?
COLDEN: Play video games because I get to choose my option. And I'd rather do that than sit there and watch the people in the TV show choose the wrong option.
MOLLY: So you want to have some say in what happens in the narrative, and that's why you like video games.
MOLLY: Let's get to it. Do video games rot our brains?
[LASER GUN FIRING]
FUZZBUTT: Pew pew pew. Let's laser the answer out of the sky.
COLDEN: What the what?
MOLLY: Excuse me. Um, who are you?
FUZZBUTT: The real question is, who am I?
MOLLY: That's what I--
FUZZBUTT: And the answer is, Captain Fuzzbutt Picklestar of the Gastropub Nebula. I am just a humble fuzzy alien with cute ears, an asteroid blasting laser, and a dream to one day reach Earth and taste a sandal.
COLDEN: Sandals are shoes.
FUZZBUTT: To one day wear a sandal.
MOLLY: Oh, you're from that video game Quest for Earth. I've played that.
FUZZBUTT: Exactly. But I left my comfortable pixelated realm to venture to your beautifully rendered homeland in search of the answer to the same question you are asking-- do video games rot your brain? I mean, I should hope not. But honestly, I have no idea. It's like that age old question of whether pants go on the human top or bottom.
MOLLY: The bottom.
FUZZBUTT: No one knows!
MOLLY: Well, you're just in time. We're going to answer that question today-- the video game one, not the human pants one. First, let's start with the basics. What do we mean by rotting your brain?
COLDEN: Are we talking about destroying your brain like it's being eaten by a brain-munching zombie parasite?
FUZZBUTT: Now, I've seen those. Real nasty creatures.
MOLLY: Or do we mean, it'll get brown and mushy like an overripe banana that's attracting flies?
FUZZBUTT: Also nasty.
COLDEN: What most people mean is they think games will make your brain weak, like you'll do worse on a test and stuff, or games will change your personality in some way.
MOLLY: The answer to the first two ideas is a hard no. Playing video games will not destroy the actual matter of your brain or turn it to literal mush.
FUZZBUTT: Phew! Case closed.
COLDEN: But the answer to the third idea, whether games harm your brain in some other way, that's less clear.
FUZZBUTT: Hmm. Say what now?
MOLLY: Lots of scientists are trying to figure this out, scientists like Shawn Green.
SHAWN: So, I'd probably start by saying video games aren't one thing, and so it makes it a really tricky question.
COLDEN: Shawn studies video games and the brain at the University of Wisconsin in Madison.
SHAWN: The analogy that we use often is, what's the effect of eating food on your body? Are you eating ice cream and chocolate? Are you eating broccoli and spinach? You need to know what type of food it is to know how it's going to impact your body. The same is true of video games.
MOLLY: There are many types of video games with completely different characters, and goals, and worlds.
COLDEN: Like Minecraft where players build things and go on adventures.
MOLLY: Or Fortnite where players battle it out in a fictional world.
COLDEN: Or Tetris, a puzzle where you try and land the falling block in a neat pattern.
FUZZBUTT: Oh! My favorite game. Only on my planet, we call it me-me-me-me-me-bap!
MOLLY: Each game requires different skills and might affect the brain in different ways.
COLDEN: Yep. A lot of the time video game research only looks at one specific game. No study can look at all of them.
MOLLY: But Shawn says there's been enough research that we can probably be sure of a few things, and it's good news for gamers.
FUZZBUTT: Oh, joy! Lay it on me.
MOLLY: He says that some types of video games seem to boost something called our perceptual skills. These skills help us do all kinds of things from reading and drawing to playing sports.
SHAWN: So kind of how well you see, or hear, or what we would call cognitive skills. How well you can kind of reason or think or plan.
MOLLY: For example, there's a video game called Rayman Raving Rabbits that researchers have studied. In the game, you play a cartoony character who shoots plungers at targets and does dance-offs with rabbits. Playing a game like this might make you faster at noticing quick changes in the environment, or you might get better at doing complicated movements with your fingers.
COLDEN: You might even become a better puzzle or problem solver.
MOLLY: Some research shows certain games can help improve your short term memory, too. So you might remember things that happened recently a little better. Does any of this seem true to you based on your time playing games, Colden?
COLDEN: Definitely. Because I'm the goalkeeper in my soccer team, so I have to use my hands and see what they're going to try and do next by watching their eyes and see if they're going to try and change what they're going to do.
MOLLY: Wow! So video games are helping you with soccer. Very cool. There are also video games designed to teach us stuff like math or a new language. And there's even a game for doctors to help them get better at surgery. Shawn says some of these games have been shown to really help people learn. So that's the good news. Now for some bad news.
FUZZBUTT: The brain-eating zombie parasites are back? Gwak! Put on your titanium beanie caps.
MOLLY: No. What I meant was there are some games that seem to negatively affect us, specifically games with a lot of fighting and violence.
FUZZBUTT: Oh. Well, that's different.
COLDEN: And we're talking about games with very intense and realistic violence, not Mario jumping on a turtle or Angry Birds flying out of slingshots. Here's game researcher Shawn Green again.
SHAWN: I would say, kind of most research in that space has, kind of, pointed to there being a small effect where more and more exposure to violent video games can cause, kind of, more aggressive thoughts, or more aggressive feelings, or maybe even more aggressive behaviors.
MOLLY: Shawn says that scientists are still debating that last point. Many scientists think it's true that violent games might make some people act a tiny bit more violently, but others think we need to do more research to be sure.
COLDEN: And either way, he says these effects are small, so most people who play violent games don't feel more aggressive or never do anything violent because of them.
MOLLY: But it's something to think about when picking which games to play.
SHAWN: For parents, in particular, knowing what types of content is in games is actually really important.
MOLLY: So games have some benefits, and some games might have a downside, too. But none of them turn your brain into literal mush. That's probably just something parents say to help their kids do what they think is the right thing.
FUZZBUTT: Yeah. Parents are always saying stuff. My father once told me if I ever left my home planet of Kalorpis I would disintegrate into a pile of cosmic dust. Obviously that didn't happen. And now I'm here with my friends Meldrick and Koliwog.
MOLLY: Not even close. It's Molly and Colden.
Good one, Meldrick the Wise.
MOLLY: So, Colden and Fuzzbutt, did we answer your question?
FUZZBUTT: I think so. Video games can help boost some skills, but really violent ones can be bad for some people. It's a lot to take in. Honestly, your world is too complicated for this pixelated pal. I'm going to go back to my game where things make sense. You see an asteroid, you blast it with a laser. You see a black hole, you fly around it. You see a human pants, you put it on your head-- probably.
MOLLY: Again, pants go on the bottom half.
FUZZBUTT: Pants, such a mystery. Well, see you later.
COLDEN: Bye. Hope you wear a sandal someday.
SUBJECT: Ba, ba, ba, ba, ba, ba, ba, ba, ba, ba, ba, brains on.
[VIDEO GAME MUSIC PLAYING]
GANGADOR: (YELLS) Hello. It me, Gangador.
FUZZBUTT: And me, Captain Fuzzbutt Picklestar.
GANGADOR: (YELLS) Today, Gangador is dancing monster friend. But long ago, Gangador was part of a video game called Most Epic Fighting Battle Realm where monsters fight and there is no dancing. So sad!
FUZZBUTT: And I am the extremely lovable but tough star of the Quest for Earth. I shoot asteroids and travel through wormholes to get to Earth.
GANGADOR: (YELLS) Gangador and Fuzzy here to tell you that video games sometimes addictive. Make you want to play, play, play.
FUZZBUTT: That's right, much like the hand-biting aliens from planet Mudflap-- once you pick up a game, it can be very hard to put it down.
GANGADOR: (YELLS) That because when players do good at game brain of player release chemical called dopamine.
FUZZBUTT: And with every asteroid blasted, every evil alien avoided, your brain rewards you with a little burst of happy, good time feelings. And once your brain gets a taste, it wants more.
GANGADOR: (YELLS) Like sour cream and onion chips, Gangador's favorite.
FUZZBUTT: Exactly. Games are often specifically designed to keep giving you little wins so those happy brain chemicals keep coming, and that makes your brain want to play on and on and on until next thing you know, you've missed your exit on the galactic superhighway, and your ship is running out of fuel, and the only planet to gas up on is Barndangulus Prime. And as you know, everyone living there will talk your ear off if you even try landing there. I mean, as an example.
GANGADOR: (YELLS) Sure. Sure. Like tiny fuzz bottom says, game's hard to stop. But playing too much can make player forget to do other important things like riding bikes with friends.
FUZZBUTT: Or combing your tail hair so they don't tangle.
GANGADOR: Or watering tiny flowers.
FUZZBUTT: Or working on yourself portrait skills. Hey, does this look like me, by the way?
GANGADOR: (YELLS) No. Real Fuzzy, much cuter. So remember, just because game is fun, don't let it take over your life. If Gangador didn't stop playing Most Epic Fighting Battle Realm, Gangador never would have known how good dancing feels.
[DANCE MUSIC PLAYING]
Twirl. Cha-cha. Slide. Sparkle fingers.
FUZZBUTT: Oh, so this is a dance party now?
GANGADOR: Do the hustle.
FUZZBUTT: Are we done with the public service announcement?
FUZZBUTT: I think I'll just go.
MOLLY: Now let's play a game with no controllers, or buttons, or even screens, it's the.
SUBJECT: Ssh. Mystery sound.
MOLLY: Are you ready, Colden?
MOLLY: Here it is.
[MYSTERY SOUND PLAYS]
What's your guess?
COLDEN: Is that a game glitching out?
MOLLY: Ooh, very nice guess. What do you hear in that sound?
COLDEN: I hear, like, someone zipping up like some kind of jacket.
MOLLY: Yeah, there's like almost something metallic. It's a very particular sound.
MOLLY: Well, we will hear it again and reveal the answer after the credits. So stick around.
Hi, friends. We're working on an episode about birthdays, and we want to hear from you. We all know the birthday song.
(SINGING) Happy birthday to you.
It's great. It's everywhere. But imagine it was your job to come up with a new song to sing to everyone on their birthdays. Colden, what would your new birthday song be?
COLDEN: (SINGING) Happy, happy, happy, happy, happy, happy, happy, happy, happy birthday to you.
MOLLY: Oh! I love that. It's very cheerful and catchy. Very good work. Well, listeners, we want to hear your new birthday songs. Record yourself and send them to us at brainson.org/contact. While you're there, you can also send us mystery sounds, drawings, high fives, and questions.
COLDEN: Like this one.
SUBJECT: Do dogs remember someone if they haven't seen them in a long time?
MOLLY: You can find an answer to that question on our Moment of Um podcast. It's a daily dose of facts and curiosity you can find wherever you listen to Brains On! Again, that's brainson.org.contact.
COLDEN: And keep listening.
You're listening to Brains On! From APM Studios. And I'm Colden.
MOLLY: And I'm Molly. Some video games are probably good for us in certain ways, but there's a catch.
COLDEN: Yeah, there's always a catch.
MOLLY: According to scientific research, playing more doesn't equal more skills. At some point, you don't really get much better at those perceptual skills we talked about. And in fact, if you play too much, you might run into other problems like not getting enough exercise or skipping your homework.
COLDEN: Hear me out, Molly. It's like flossing.
MOLLY: Flossing? Like your teeth?
COLDEN: Yeah. You floss for a few minutes, and it does a lot of good-- popcorn kernels vanquished, plaque busted, mouth cleaned. And if you keep at it for maybe 15 minutes, sure, you'll probably scrape off even more tooth gunk. At some point, you flossed all the stuff you can. And eventually, it'll just hurt your gums and even make them bleed.
MOLLY: Hmm. OK. Interesting example, but I love it. So video games, like most things, are best if you don't overdo them. We all need balance in our lives.
COLDEN: But, Molly, if video games don't actually rot your brain, why are so many people afraid they will?
MOLLY: Well, people tend to be worried about new technology, especially how it'll affect kids. And video games are not the first bit of technology to get people all in an uproar.
CATHERINE: People were really upset about novels in the 19th century.
MOLLY: That's Catherine Clark. She's a historian at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.
COLDEN: Wait, I'm sorry, did she just say novels, as in chapter books?
MOLLY: Yup. Around 200 years ago, fictional books, meaning stories are made up and written down for people to read, were still a pretty new thing. Today, we call them novels.
CATHERINE: The novel is like an invention of the 18th century. The idea that you have fictional stories being narrated often by first person narrators does not exist in the 14th century in the same way that it does in the 18th century.
MOLLY: And when things like the printing press and less expensive paper came along and made books a lot easier to make, suddenly, these novels were everywhere. Lots of people could suddenly read this new type of storytelling. But some people were worried these newfangled books would rot your brain.
CATHERINE: So if you like to read novels, you liked things like romance and adventure. And that if you liked those things in novels, you would not be able to pay attention to things that were better for your mind, those things like philosophy, science, religion. So they're worried about the mind being weakened.
SUBJECT: My sight is everywhere offended by these foolish yet dangerous books. If my sensitive daughter should merely open the pages of one of these tomes of moral turpitude, I fear her growing mind will be deprived of nourishment. It will languish and diminish thusly.
COLDEN: Allow me to interpret. I speak 19th century English. He's saying, novels will rot your brain.
MOLLY: Thank you, Colden. And this is just one example. Throughout history, people, especially adults, were worried that new technologies would distract young people, weaken their minds, and make them lonely. When radio was first invented and kids and teens were suddenly listening to music and stories and game shows, parents were concerned.
SUBJECT: Will you listen to that infertile racket constantly pouring from the radio? Gee Wilikers, Poor Timmy's brain will surely turn into mush.
MOLLY: Then they got worried when comic books came along.
SUBJECT: I can't abide Dot staring at those pictures all day. Her brain's going to shrink from all these silly stories.
MOLLY: TV, too.
SUBJECT: Wally, how many times do I have to tell you? That darn thing will rot your brain.
MOLLY: Being a parent is hard. You want what's best for your kids. But when new things get introduced into the world that you aren't familiar with, you're worried about how they'll affect your kids. And again, too much of anything can spell trouble. But many adults today grew up playing video games themselves, even our historian friend Catherine.
CATHERINE: I love video games. I played a lot of Zelda as a child.
MOLLY: I was a Kirby's Pinball Land gal myself. And now I play video games with my daughter. Any Ooblets fans out there? It's a great game.
COLDEN: So parents worrying about video games is a long tradition of grown-ups trying to help their kids live good lives?
MOLLY: Yep. And because there's always new technology in the works, Catherine says there's always something new to worry about.
CATHERINE: So in the '50s, it's television. In the '20s, it's radio. And then in the '90s, with Nintendo, it starts to be about video games as well. And who knows what the next thing will be?
SUBJECT: [SIGHS] I do worry about Quinlan spending so much time in the molecular reconfiguration chamber. Why can't they just play a good old fashioned video game instead?
MOLLY: So video games don't actually rot your brain, and they may be good for building some skills.
COLDEN: Like problem solving or hand-eye coordination.
MOLLY: But some scientists also think playing really violent games might be bad for you.
COLDEN: And remember, adults are always a little nervous about the effect that new technology will have on kids.
MOLLY: But it seems like the answer to these worries is always to remember the motto, "everything in moderation." That's it for this episode of Brains On!
COLDEN: This episode was produced by Molly Bloom, Anna Wehhel, Aron Woldeslassie, Nico Gonzalez Wisler, Rosie DuPont, Anna Goldfield, Molly Quinlan, Ruby Guthrie, and Marc Sanchez.
MOLLY: Our editors are Sanden Totten and Shahla Farzan. This episode was sound designed by Rachel Brees. And we had engineering help from Aaron [INAUDIBLE] and Jess Berg. Beth Pearlman is our executive producer. The executives in charge of APM Studios are Chandra Kavati, Alex Schaffert, and Joanne Griffith. Special thanks to Annalisa Calvert, Cris Eckert, Kennedy Calvert, Vicki Kreckler, and Coco.
COLDEN: Brain On! is a Nonprofit Public Radio program.
MOLLY: There are lots of ways to support the show. Head to brainson.org.
COLDEN: While you're there, you can subscribe to our Smarty Pass which lets you listen to ad free episodes with other super special bonus content.
MOLLY: And you can submit your birthday songs, questions, and fan art. Have I mentioned how much we love your fan art? We cannot get enough of it.
OK. Colden, are you ready to listen to that mystery sound again?
COLDEN: Of course.
MOLLY: All right. Here it is.
[MYSTERY SOUND PLAYS]
What are your thoughts?
COLDEN: Um. I think I'm going to stick with the zipper.
COLDEN: Or I feel like they're like rubbing plastic together.
MOLLY: Ooh. Very interesting. You ready to hear the answer?
JUDE: Hi. I'm Jude. And I'm from Hudsonville, Michigan. And that was the sound of two magnets when they connect.
MOLLY: Have you ever done that before, like have two magnets bump together?
COLDEN: Yes. I did that in my class before recently. So now I'm surprised I didn't get that.
MOLLY: I know it's so hard. These sounds are so hard out of context. But you did say two pieces of plastic bumping together. And a lot of magnets I've played with are covered in plastic. So I think you got, like, halfway there. So good job.
[MYSTERY SOUND PLAYS]
MOLLY: Now it's time for the brain's honor roll. These are the incredible kids who keep the show going with their questions, ideas, mystery sounds, drawings, and high fives.
[LISTING HONOR ROLL]
We'll be back next week with more answers to your questions.
COLDEN: Thanks for listening.
Transcription services provided by 3Play Media.