The Download: the impact of video games, and healthy brains

This is today’s edition of The Download, our weekday newsletter that provides a daily dose of what’s going on in the world of technology.

We may never fully know how video games affect our well-being

For decades, lawmakers, researchers, journalists, and parents have worried that video games are bad for us: that they encourage violent behavior or harm mental health. These fears have spilled into policy decisions affecting millions of people.

The World Health Organization added “gaming disorder” to its International Classification of Diseases (ICD) in 2019, while China restricts people under 18 from playing games for more than three hours a week in a bid to prevent minors from becoming addicted.

However, in recent years a growing body of research has argued that video games are in fact good for us, improving cognition, relieving stress, and bolstering communication skills.

The reality, a new study suggests, is that we simply don’t have a good grip on how games affect our well-being, if at all, demonstrating the complexity of making definite conclusions about how and why playing video games affects us. Read the full story.

—Rhiannon Williams

How do strong muscles keep your brain healthy?

We’ve often thought about muscle as a thing that exists separately from intellect. The truth is, our brains and muscles are in constant conversation with each other, sending electrochemical signals back and forth. In a very tangible way, our brain health depends on keeping our muscles moving.

Exercise stimulates what scientists call muscle-brain “cross talk,” and protein molecules released when muscles contract help to determine specific beneficial responses in the brain. These can include the formation of new neurons and increased synaptic plasticity, both of which boost learning and memory. Read the full story.

—Bonnie Tsui

The must-reads

I’ve combed the internet to find you today’s most fun/important/scary/fascinating stories about technology. 

1 Google flagged a father’s medical photos of his son as abuse
When Big Tech’s abuse-detection tools get it wrong, the consequences can be extremely serious. (NYT $) 

2 Software can do better than ‘male,’ ‘female,’ and ‘other’
In many cases, a few simple lines of code is all it takes. (MIT Technology Review)

3 Carbon removal needs an ethics code 
The industry has birthed plenty of wild claims. Codes of conduct could help to reign in the chance they’ll go rogue. (Protocol)
+ Seville is using ancient Persian technology to combat climate change. (Bloomberg $)
+ Companies hoping to grow carbon-sucking kelp may be rushing ahead of the science. (MIT Technology Review)

4 Black market abortion pill websites are thriving
It’s not always clear where the pills come from, or how to use them. (WSJ $)
+ Crossing state lines is taking its toll on those seeking abortions. (Slate)
+ Where to get abortion pills and how to use them. (MIT Technology Review)

5 NSO Group has a new CEO
As part of a larger internal shakeup. (FT $)
+ The hacking industry faces the end of an era. (MIT Technology Review)

6 Big Tech is bracing itself for a new wave of ‘big lie’ misinformation
Critics say their outdated detection and removal methods won’t help protect the midterm elections. (WP $)

7 There’s no evidence that student behavior apps work 
But schools across the US are adopting them anyway. (Undark)
+ Software that monitors students during tests perpetuates inequality and violates their privacy. (MIT Technology Review)

8 Prostheses are failing amputees  
Well-intentioned engineers are failing to grasp what people with limb loss actually need from their prosthetics. (IEEE Spectrum)

9 Inside Reddit’s vile nudes marketplace
As well as selling the images and videos, the community works together to dox the women appearing in them. (BBC)
+ A horrifying new AI app swaps women into porn videos with a click. (MIT Technology Review)

10 Thai activists are trolling their monarchy
Using Despicable Me and Harry Potter tropes. (Foreign Policy $)

Quote of the day

“It’s just another thing to keep reminding you to get on your phone.”

—Deborah Mackenzie, 23, explains why she won’t be joining the swathes of young people using BeReal, an app that encourages authenticity, to The Guardian.

The big story

Video games are dividing South Korea

December 2019 

When the American entertainment company Blizzard released StarCraft, its real-time science fiction strategy game in 1998, it wasn’t just a hit—it was an awakening. Back then, South Korea was seen as more of a technological backwater than a major market. Blizzard hadn’t even bothered to localize the game into Korean. 

Despite this, StarCraft—where players fight each other with armies of warring galactic species—was a runaway success. Out of 11 million copies sold worldwide, 4.5 million were in South Korea. 

StarCraft and PC bang culture spoke to a generation of young South Koreans boxed in by economic anxiety and rising academic pressures. The social aspect of StarCraft set the stage for another phenomenon: e-sports. Read the full story.

—Max S. Kim

We can still have nice things

A place for comfort, fun and distraction in these weird times. (Got any ideas? Drop me a line or tweet ’em at me.)

+ You heard it here first—here are the hottest colors of 2023.
+ This story about a seal who broke into a biologist’s home is hilarious.
+ This automated cringey LinkedIn post generator has given me hours of entertainment.
+ How amazing does Catherine Zeta-Jones look in the new Addams Family tale, Wednesday
+ Janet Jackson’s Rhythm Nation is such a tune, it breaks laptops.

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