The Pernicious, Persistent Myth That Games Will Break Our Brains

Discussions of gaming, ADHD, and other mental conditions have long employed the language of pathology. The reality is more complicated.

“Video games cause ADHD.”

I remember when my college comparative religions instructor said those words during a lecture. It certainly wasn’t the first time I’d heard the claim—a host of headlines, politicians, and “advocates” in special interest groups have parroted it and similar myths about video games for decades—but that didn’t make it any less frustrating. For those of us who live with ADHD and other forms of neuroatypical cognition—such as autism spectrum disorder (ASD), dyslexia, and epilepsy, to name a few—the idea that gaming is what “causes” atypical neurocognitive behavior is not only in direct contrast to our lived experiences, it’s also pseudo-scientific.

The reality is that being neurodivergent can be a major inhibitor to enjoying hobbies like video games, and it makes simple life tasks much more difficult to complete. And in an added bit of irony, the very games that get blamed by folks like my college instructor for causing ADHD are being used as learning and development tools for neurodivergent children and adults alike.

Before we get too far, let’s define what ADHD even is. ADHD stands for “attention deficit and hyperactivity disorder,” and the similarly defined ADD stands for “attention deficit disorder.” (For the remainder of the article I will use ADHD as an umbrella term for both, since ADD is considered a subset of ADHD). While ADHD is often personified as hyperactive, distracted, and impulsive children, equally symptomatic of ADHD is the inability to stop focusing on things that grab our attention—something known as “hyperfocusing.” Despite being labeled a “disorder,” some advocates and academics consider it more accurate to place ADHD as one of the numerous, variable forms of human cognition, a concept known as neurodiversity.

For me, ADHD manifests as a general difficulty with time management, altered spatio-temporal awareness, hyperactivity, and hyperfocusing on things that may not be immediately important to the task at hand. Many of these are also symptomatic of other forms of neuroatypical cognition. (It’s common for individuals to be identified with multiple forms of neurodivergence, in fact.) As a child, these symptoms led to poor grades and difficulty making and keeping friends–often resulting in bullying from others. Gaming, luckily, gave me a way to bond with classmates.

Jean-Karlo Lemus Rivera, a writer from Puerto Rico, recalls similar experiences growing up with autism spectrum disorder. “The few friends I was able to make was due to gaming. Meeting people I could play Pokémon with or swap secrets for the Zelda games led to a lot of long lunchtimes where I was building lasting relations with other players. Games were how I spent my lunchtimes in high school.”

Teachers and other education professionals are well aware of using gaming as a tool to help children bond and engage academically. Kendra Sowards, a behavioral therapist from Portland, Oregon, who works with neurodivergent children, uses games of all kinds to help her students learn, develop life skills, and create bonds with other children. “We use board games all the time to practice turn taking skills, counting and language,” she said. “And we use playground games as ways to work on gross motor, social skills, and prosocial interaction.”

Kim Curtner, a social worker and educational instructor from Seattle, said that using video games and interactive media in educational settings is an effective way of engaging neurodivergent students. “I use board games with children, and in social skills, I have used interactive videos.” She also explained that recent teaching strategies that gamify academics can be “effective for all children, but especially for kids with ADHD or ASD.” Another effective strategy Curner employs is rewarding children with allotted time on laptops or other electronics for playing games between normal school work.

Psychologists have even suggested that the act of simply playing a video game can be a tool to teach positive time management and concentration skills, regardless of a person’s age or development.

Minecraft is probably the best example. One need only spend a few minutes on Youtube watching examples of feats of engineering and computational design to see its learning potential. The enduringly-popular building game even makes frequent appearances in classrooms and as a method for completing school work, and its flexibility has spawned entire curriculums in myriad school subjects with the Minecraft Education Edition, which allows teachers to build exercises and lessons within the game. It doesn’t have to be confined to delivering assignments or lectures in-game, though.

Game design classes and after-school clubs centered around specific titles crop up in schools all over the country, with the intent of giving children extra after-school activities and learning opportunities. In grade school, I was part of an after-school Age of Empires II club that was run by faculty. Like so many neurodivergent students, I struggled with the standard curricula and classroom styles of the American public school system, but having the Age of Empires club helped me maintain enthusiasm for school. Around the same time, I was lucky enough to have an English teacher who recognized that games were a motivator for me and let me complete assignments by writing magazine-style game reviews and fan fiction. She even devised a gamified system to help me turn in my work on time. It wouldn’t be until late into my undergraduate studies—when I got to play, write about, and develop games—that I would find myself so interested in schoolwork again. Students shouldn’t have to wait until the latter portions of their college education to get that kind of engagement. Alternative learning styles are important, and gaming is clearly an effective one.

Gamification doesn’t work for everyone, though. ”I know it’s worked for others, but things like that never clicked for me,” said writer and indie game developer Colin Spacetwinks. “Trying to tie gamification to getting various chores done has failed for me, despite multiple efforts.” Others, like Rivera, don’t have that option. “I’ve never encountered gamified elements in my daily life, particularly in an educational setting. I was in school in a time where gamified elements just didn’t exist. This caused some difficulty with my AS diagnosis and my learning disorders.”

Even worse, these challenges can make enjoying our favorite hobby difficult. Jacob Frebe, a musician from Seattle who has suffered from epileptic seizures his whole life, encounters physiological obstacles to playing games. “A lot of people assume I can’t play any games, when games are really my escape,” he said. “Some days I can play for hours, some days I can’t even turn on my computer. I’ve had to do research on what games are like because if the controls are too complex my brain [gets] fuzzy. “

For Frebe, accessibility is a major concern. “I think games that use blur or like a static filter with no options to turn it off is just bad game design. It’s such an easy fix but some games just don’t and that’s so frustrating for me because I can’t look at the screen. Easy fixes to make disabled people’s lives easier shouldn’t be DLC or a fan patch. That’s just ridiculous.”

Those with ADHD can also find gaming to be a difficult hobby to engage with, but for very different reasons. While my ADHD makes getting invested in a game’s narrative much more difficult, what’s worse is when it makes simply playing a game nearly impossible. Days- or weeks-long periods of hyperfocus can be followed by extreme lulls in an ability to focus on any hobby or general life task that last just as long.

Such behaviors may seem like edge cases to the broader public, but they’re quite common among neurodivergent individuals. As RJ Nueske, an engineer from Wyoming who has been diagnosed with both ADHD and ASD, described, he can “get suddenly overstimulated for no reason and that can kill the mood very quickly. I might be able to marathon a game for 16 hours, and then a week later be only able to play 30 minutes before some sound or image just tricks my brain to play dead.”

While overstimulation and burnout are common, so too is detrimental hyperfocusing. MMOs, grind-heavy RPGs, or non-linear exploration-based games where increasing numbers or a gradually revealed map represent incremental progress are especially enticing for me. Nueske also experiences this, saying, “what really can get my attention are RPGS/JRPGS with huge competition goals, and Rouge-lites/likes. Having a large, clearly defined goal with a lists of easily break-up-able smaller parts means I don’t have to plan or consider the larger picture; I have several goals I can shoot [for] at once to the bigger goal. These games also usually have large fantastical stories and settings and themes that keep me hooked and involved in a world that I want to be a part of.” Meanwhile, Spacetwinks described avoiding clicker-style games because having ADHD “makes it very easy to lose time to them, which I have before, just clicking and watching the numbers go up, pushing me to click more and do more and be unable to tear myself away, because… well, the numbers keep going up.”

While some advocates overblow the connection, the World Health Organization now recognizes gaming addiction as a real condition. Certain behavioral aspects found in some neurodivergent individuals—especially those with ADHD—could make them more prone to periods of gaming addiction. This is very different, however, than claiming video games cause ADHD in the first place.

Like many forms of neurodivergent cognition, the causes of ADHD are not fully understood. According to the National Institute of Mental Health, theories range from low birthweight to exposure to environmental toxins at a young age or prenatal substance abuse by mothers, and even speculation that ADHD is an evolutionary trait that caused humans to be nomadic hunter-gatherers. Still, people want easy answers, hence pseudo-scientific claims about vaccines causing autism or video games causing ADHD, for which there is no evidence. Video games are an easy target for those who believe that ADHD, ASD, dyslexia, or any other form of neurodivergence is “wrong,” an error to be avoided and fixed, rather than innate human difference that deserves to be recognized, accepted, and accommodated. 

It’s true that the incremental progression, interactivity, and technological prowess innate to the medium of video games are prime subjects for hyperfocus, and technology in general is a major distraction for children and adults of all backgrounds. However, despite the potential increased risk of gaming addiction in neurodivergent individuals, the fact remains that games have been shown to help with concentration, mood control, and motor skills for all learning styles, neurodivergent or otherwise. 

There’s an important lesson to be learned here: Games, just like any other artistic medium or learning resource, are a tool. Tools are not inherently good or bad, and games appear to be helpful for both students and educators alike when implemented properly. Perhaps instead of blaming Fortnite for disrupting the “normal” classroom setting or teaching curriculum, we should be thinking about how Fortnite could be used to facilitate learning and development instead.

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