December 7, 2021

I, Science

The science magazine of Imperial College

It’s a Saturday night in Los Angeles and the University of South California’s Galen Centre is completely sold out. Over 10,000 excited fans have packed out the sports arena. Each has paid at least $30 to watch two teams battle it out in the championship final. The play-offs were thrilling, but this match is for the $1 million pot.

Yet this isn’t hockey or basketball. These ‘athletes’ aren’t at the peak of their physical prime. Instead they are fighting it out through button-bashing and mouse-clicks. This is the final of the League of Legends video game championships. This is eSports.

The fact that video games have risen such a level of popularity and business potential is incredible. But with gaming tournaments taking on this high-profile nature, with self-styled ‘athletes’ earning impressive salaries – no doubt acting as one of the incentives to their daily 10 hours of practise – it brings into question the potential health issues of intense, long-term gaming.

There are many physical injuries, usually linked to overplay leading to friction causing numbness and blistering. But what’s even more interesting is the effect video games can have on our brains.

One European study found that children who frequently played video games possessed an enlarged ventral striatum, also known as the ‘pleasure centre’ of the brain. The researchers believe that the playing of video games actively enlarges this pleasure centre.

This area of the brain is also linked to addictive behaviour. Video game addiction is yet to be recognised as a mental disorder, yet there are instances of it causing harm. For example in August of this year a teenager in Taiwan died of cardiac arrest, after playing the game Diablo 3, in a seated position for 40 straight hours. However, a meta-analysis on the issue concluded that video game addiction arises out of other mental health problems, rather than causing them. And regardless, if it were a decision between an addiction to substance abuse or video games, which would you choose?

Despite this darker side, video game playing has also been linked to positive effects. Of the many studies conducted using video games (no doubt partly due to the ease in procuring willing volunteers) there exist those that demonstrate an increased creativity in children or boosted cognitive function in older adults.

Back to the League of Legends championship, and in a documentary made about the phenomenon what’s striking is the number of references to it being a ‘sport’, and the gamers ‘athletes’. And with its huge commercial success – with 24 million global fans watching the tournament online – it seems this trend of professionalising video gaming is set to continue.

What will be interesting is waiting to see how such intense video gaming will affect individuals, and whether professional video gamers will suffer any adverse effects from their favourite past-time becoming their livelihood. The common injuries of tennis elbows and pulled hamstrings found in traditional sports may have to make way for the ‘PlayStation thumb’ and ‘Nintendinitis’ of the geek revolution’s athlete.


IMAGE: kuantou, flickr