[Plenty of studies are being done which examine the effect gaming has on the brain, and independent developer and former neuroscience researcher Erin Robinson takes a look at ten particularly interesting studies to see what they can teach us. You can follow Erin's work at Livelyivy.com, or on Twitter @Livelyivy.]
When I was in high school I had a psychology teacher we called "Max." On the day we were about to start learning about the human brain Max paused, closed the textbook, and said something that determined the next few years of my life. "If I could do it all again," he said, "I'd go and study the brain. Neuroscience is at the same place physics and chemistry were at a hundred years ago -- on the brink of all the big discoveries."
It stayed with me -- I got my degree in psychology and spent some time working in neuroscience labs before video games reclaimed my life.
I was invited to speak at GDC China last year about the intersection of neuroscience and gaming. I tracked down almost 60 contemporary research papers and handpicked the ones stood out to me in terms of their innovation and creativity. Here are 10 things we didn't know before.
1. People with no memory can remember playing Tetris
You may be surprised to learn that scientists are not only studying the effects of video games on the brain -- they are using games to help unravel how the brain works.
Consider anterograde amnesiacs, the unfortunate lot who have lost the ability to form new memories due to brain damage. It's the kind of amnesia suffered by the main character in the movie Memento, who lives in an ever-updating present, unable to remember anything that happened after his traumatic accident.
And yet, people with this type of amnesia can learn to play Tetris just fine, and even get better with practice (although not as well as people without brain injury). And it gets weirder. Have you ever spent a lot of time doing something repetitive, particularly something new, and then tried to fall asleep? Have you noticed the intrusion of visual images related to what you were just doing? Those are called hypnagogic images, and you guessed it, the amnesiac patients still saw things that looked like Tetris blocks despite having no recollection of playing the game.
This is the latest bit of evidence to suggest that there are separate memory pathways in the brain: explicit memories, which are the people, places, and experiences we remember, and procedural memories, which are the skills we learn with practice. And it's possible to suffer damage to one pathway and not lose the other.
By the way, becoming obsessed with an activity to the point that it begins to intrude your thoughts, mental images, and dreams is known as the "Tetris Effect." So that's something else video games have given us.
2. You can use the same drug to treat a heroin addiction and a StarCraft addiction
It turns out that gaming overusers share some brain characteristics with drug addicts. In a recent PET scan study, the brains of internet gaming overusers were compared to their non-gaming counterparts.
The gaming overusers showed abnormal activity in regions linked to impulse control and reward processing.
A main feature of this disordered thinking is the inability to resist the impulse to perform an action, despite its harm to oneself and others. It's commonly seen in not only drug addiction, but other disorders of impulse control like compulsive gambling.
So if the brain of a compulsive gamer functions like an addict's, can we treat gaming overuse like we would an addiction? One group of scientists decided to try it out. Bupropion, a drug commonly given to heroin addicts to cut their cravings, was given to a group of gamers who were excessively playing (what else?) StarCraft. The unhealthy level of StarCraft was defined as more than 30 hours per week.
The result: the drug helped. After six weeks, the patients had lower cravings for internet game play, less total game play time, and fewer symptoms of depression. Additionally, when the patients were shown images from StarCraft during an MRI scan, they showed less activation in the brain areas related to craving. The drug acts by inhibiting the reuptake of dopamine and norepinephrine, both involved in the processing of rewards. In other words, your cells stay happier longer, perhaps enough to fight off the impulse temporarily.
3. Child burn victims feel less pain when playing a VR game
We're all familiar with games as escapism, but there is now solid evidence that video games can also modulate the effects of real, physical pain.
One study looked at the pain experienced by pediatric burn patients during a particularly grueling process: the changing of their dressings. The usual treatment for these patients involved a strong painkiller, but these tended to have unwanted side effects like nausea and lethargy.
Then someone had the brilliant idea to have these kids play a virtual reality game (helmet and all) during the process. Not only did the children report significantly less pain, but they also felt fewer of the negative side effects of the painkillers (their nurses provided similar reports).
It is thought that the VR games interrupt and distract the way that current thoughts, including pain, are processed by the brain. The mechanisms for that process aren't clear, but VR games seem to at least reduce the perception of pain. While this study only looked at nine children, the results are similar to what they've found in adults. My takeaway: I cannot believe somebody found a use for VR helmets.
4. No one at any major news outlet understands the third variable problem
You're probably familiar with the axiom "correlation does not equal causation." Roughly, this means that just because two events are correlated, one does not necessarily cause the other. The third variable problem is similar. For instance, if you graphed the number of swimming accidents and Popsicle sales over the course of a year, you'd see that more Popsicles tend to mean more accidents. The problem here is that we're not looking at a third variable -- the warm weather -- that is actually affecting the other two.
It seems obvious on paper that Popsicles don't cause swimming accidents. It becomes difficult, however, to put that knowledge into practice when you're working with incomplete information.
Consider one study about video games and attention problems in children. Say you follow a group of grade school boys and girls and ask their parents to provide detailed information about their video gaming habits. A year later you evaluate the children for attention problems, and sure enough, the gamers are worse off in school (a common outcome).
But can you say the games caused these children to develop attention problems? What about the reverse -- that kids who already find it hard to focus choose to play these games?
There are a multitude of potential "third variables" for these results: problems at school or home chasing the children to distraction, difficulties with socializing that lead them to choose games over peers, habits of inactivity that lead them to not just games, but TV, comics, movies... and there could be many others.
So despite this tantalizing evidence, the study never uses the word "cause" to describe the relationship between video games and attention problems (more accurate is "linked to" or "associated with"). To use the word "cause" or, God forbid, "prove" in this context, would be risking an academic career.
But that doesn't really make for a good headline, so instead we get things like this.
5. The Nintendo Wii is helping stroke victims regain limb use
If you were a stroke patient 10 years ago, you were lucky if you lived close to a hospital that had the necessary rehabilitation equipment -- and that stuff didn't come cheap. But things are different now: in a study published two years ago, a small group of stroke patients showed significant improvements to movement and coordination after two weeks of training with the Wii. And, perhaps more critically, all 16 of them said the Wii was comparable to, if not better than, conventional therapy -- with the added bonus of being enjoyable.
The study made the case for using Wii training in conjunction with conventional therapies, and even suggested a doctor could monitor the patient's progress electronically while they played in their own homes. This is a significant cause for hope -- stroke is the leading cause of long-term disability in the United States.
6. Your Mii avatar says more about you than you thought
It's not just physiotherapists who see the research potential of the Wii. In a study published last year, experimenters had a group of participants make avatars of themselves on the Mii Channel. Half the participants were asked to make an avatar that depicted them as accurately as possible, their "real self." The other half were asked to create an avatar that represented their ideal self, in terms of body weight, hair, features, etc.
The participants who created an idealized Mii felt far more attachment to their avatars while playing a game, which the study referred to as the "avatar-self connection." The avatar-self connection was measured by how much the player agreed or disagreed with statements like this: "I consider the Mii I created to be me (it reflects who I consider myself to be or the way that I want to present myself to others)."
Although the experimenters acknowledged a lot of limitations in their study, they seemed to find evidence for the idea of a "malleable self." That is, a perception of oneself that temporarily becomes more in tune with the avatar you're seeing on the screen.
7. People with schizophrenia experience fewer symptoms after playing video games
The term "schizophrenia" actually encompasses a broad spectrum of possible symptoms and deficits. People who have this disease may suffer from what are called "positive symptoms," which include delusions, hallucinations, and disorganized speech and thinking ("negative symptoms" refer to deficits of normal behavior). They may also suffer from side effects caused by antipsychotic medications, including slurred speech, slow thinking, and movement problems. As evidenced by that list, it is a difficult disease to treat.
But in the only study of its kind, scientists found that patients showed improvements in both their positive symptoms and side effects after eight weeks of video game play. Amazingly, it didn't seem to matter what kind of game they played -- internet gambling games, RPGs, strategy games, and shooting games were all used in the study. Yet this group of patients scored better in all symptoms compared to a control group of patients who spent their time watching TV and movies.
The fact that positive symptoms decreased, especially delusions, suggested that the way video games activate the frontal cortex was important (the frontal cortex is involved in planning, decision-making, and other high-level cognition tasks). The scientists also compared the effect of video games to cigarette smoking. Apparently smoking has long been known to mitigate the symptoms of schizophrenia by facilitating the release of dopamine in certain parts of the brain. The scientists then humbly suggested video games as a possible alternative.
8. Counter-Strike turns you into a visual processing ninja
My boyfriend always says that Counter-Strike made him a better driver. Being able to read people's intentions from their behavior means being able to guess their next move, even before they know it themselves. How many times have you seen half a sec second of someone's driving to know they're going to do something stupid? With apologies to Jeff Foxworthy, "You might be a gamer if..."
It turns out there's plenty of evidence for this phenomenon: gamers are, in general, better at processing visually complicated information.
In one study participants were asked to identify, as fast as they could, which way a target object was facing (in this case, whether a cartoon fish was facing left or right). This task got progressively harder, as they introduced visual distractor objects (a bunch of fish facing various directions). Not only were the gamers just faster at this task, but they also were better able to "tune out" the distractors and give more accurate responses.
The study I just mentioned also includes this excellent quote, which I choose to mentally read in a Sagan voice: "Previous research suggests that action video game play improves attentional resources, allowing gamers to better allocate their attention across both space and time."
This processing power also extends to the auditory domain. A similar study asked participants to put on a set of headphones and determine which side was playing a tone. Both earphones were also playing white noise in order to mask the tone. Interestingly, both the gamers and non-gamers had about the same accuracy. The gamers were just faster at it, even as the tone got quieter and quieter.
This transfer of learning from one domain (video games) to another (unrelated information processing tasks) is something of a holy grail to education researchers. Academia and education experts are abuzz with ideas about how to turn the power of games into a tool for learning. In fact, I'm doing some contract work right now to design an educational game that integrates scientific literature with rewarding gameplay. I think we've only seen the very beginning of games and learning.
9. Video games and the aging population are going to be BFFs
At least one study has shown that seniors (sometimes adorably referred to as "silver gamers") can actually improve their cognitive function by staying mentally active. Another study observed that seniors found puzzle games on the Nintendo DS more engaging than pen-and-paper activities like crosswords. In fact, seniors take pleasure in logic and problem-solving games that younger generations would find tedious (congratulations on making it this far in an article that's almost all text, by the way).
10. Here's what happens when you scan someone's brain during Super Monkey Ball 2
If you've never played a Super Monkey Ball game, the basic structure is: steer a monkey towards a goal, collect bananas for extra points, and avoid falling off the edge of the level. And according to one recent study, each of those events triggers a different pattern of brainwaves.
An EEG is a device that measures electrical impulses near the surface of the brain (it looks a bit like a shower cap filled with electrodes). Our thought patterns evoke different electrical charges depending on which areas of the brain are active.
And when you stick Super Monkey Ball in there, you get findings like "Picking up bananas evoked decreased theta activation on central electrodes, decreased high alpha activation on frontal electrodes, and increased beta activation on frontal electrodes." Which is a fancy way of saying you're paying attention.
You might expect all of the game components to have this sort of effect, but not so: falling off the edge of the level actually triggered activation in the motor areas of the brain, which may relate to an actual feeling of falling (who hasn't felt such a visceral reaction to losing a game?) And reaching the goal? That put the players' brains into a relaxed state.
I believe we're only at the beginning of the cross-pollination between games and neuroscience. Games are helping us unravel things we didn't know about the brain, from disorders like addiction and amnesia to the processing of pain and visual information. Games are tackling some of the pressing medical issues of our time, including physical rehabilitation and the challenges of an aging population. They're also teaching us about the way we feel rewarded, and even how we define our sense of self. And as far as neuroscience being on the brink of all its great discoveries, if you ask me, I think Max was right.