Video Games & MRI

Recently a new focus in neuroscience has been established: the pattern of brain waves in a person, as they sit in front of a screen, playing games. Here are three publications, which describe the effort and the state of affairs. Two are more focused on the neurobiology aspect, the other one on the social aspects.

Playing Video-games

No hiding place


"While Dr Cohen's group wrestles with how people make choices, Klaus Mathiak, of the University of Tübingen, in Germany, and his colleagues, are using fMRI to study the effects which certain sorts of choice have on brain activity. Specifically, the team is looking at what goes on in the heads of dedicated video-games players during violent 'social interactions' within a game."

"Dr Mathiak enlisted 13 gamers who played video games for, on average, 20 hours a week. While the gamers stalked and shot the enemy from the relative discomfort of a scanner's interior, the researchers recorded events in their brains."

"As a player approached a violent encounter, part of his brain called the anterior cingulate cortex became active. This area is associated with aggression in less fictional scenarios, and also with the subsequent suppression of more positive emotions, such as empathy. Dr Mathiak noted that the responses in his gamers were thus strikingly similar to the neural correlates of real aggression. As he puts it, 'Contrary to what the industry says, it appears to be more than just a game.'" [The Economist, Oct 28th, 2004]

Are video games good or bad?

Mind Games


"Researchers have investigated whether playing video games improves the speed and accuracy of surgeons. They are doing MRIs to see what happens in the brain when violent games are played. They are developing video games designed to help students retain more of what they learn in the classroom."

" […] When a new medium arrives, young people are the early adapters," said Henry Jenkins, director of the Comparative Media Studies program at MIT and one of the nation's leading video-game thinkers. "Parents are spooked by it because it was not part of their world when they grew up. It gets blamed for all sorts of things."

" […] Whether we like it or not, this is the medium of our moment," said Sheldon Brown, a UCSD visual arts professor and director of the school's Center for Research in Computing and the Arts.
It is a medium that is telling our cultural story, and the fact that it is a primary tool of youth and adolescents means it will have a tremendous impact on how the next generation or two plays itself out. It's not something we can ignore."

" […] More recently, the emphasis has expanded beyond the practical. Researchers at some institutions are taking a social-sciences approach to the games, grappling with questions, for example, about the feminism of Lara Croft, the popular heroine of the "Tomb Raider" series.
Some of the nation's most prestigious universities – Stanford and Princeton among them – have had seminars aimed at assessing the larger implications of joystick fever.
Brown, at UCSD, has students who use video-game imagery and technology in their art – use it as a way to highlight and comment on what is happening in modern culture.
When you put this into the realm of art, you are asking people to look at it seriously," Brown said. "One of the problems with video games in our culture is that they are not taken seriously, or they are done so in a patronizing way."

" […] The thought for a long time was that the kids who played games would grow out of it," Vorderer said. "But that seems not to have happened. Instead, we have seen a continuous increase in the average age of the gamer.

According to industry estimates, that average age is now 29.
Before long, Vorderer and others believe, the White House will be occupied by a president who is a gamer."

" […] Games are becoming so prominent economically, socially and culturally that it's a mistake to ignore them, he said – and a mistake to miss the opportunity to use them in ways beyond just entertainment. Already, shooting games are used by the military in training. Some therapists help patients overcome a fear of flying or driving by having them play simulation games."

"[…] People like me are being supplanted by a generation that has played games all their lives," Jenkins said. "They know them the way I knew movies." In time, he believes, people will be taking game-appreciation classes in college.
"A critical language is being developed," he said. "It won't be whether video games are good or bad. It will be about critical judgments: Some games are good, some games are bad. And we'll understand why.""

[John Wilkens, The San Diego Union-Tribune, August 15, 2004]

Video Games and Violence

A Ph.D. in Mortal Kombat

"Ever since they were children, Steve Choi, Ethan Levy and Elaine Chan have been told by people who never met them that the great passion of their lives, the thing that captivated and moved them, was the enemy of intellect, emotionally damaging and quite possibly the end of civilization as we know it.

Choi, Levy and Chan are gamers. That is, they play video games with serious devotion and intensity. They are also students at the University of Southern California - Choi and Levy, both 22, are entering their senior year, and Chan, 21, is working on her Ph.D. But far from merely overcoming their digital predilections to succeed in college, these three and others like them are using their knowledge of games such as Mortal Kombat and the Sims to further their education. As members of USC’s Computer Games project, they are the local vanguard of a new academic discipline: video game scholarship."

" […] Ritterfeld says the topic itself is polarizing. “The nongamers consistently criticize the games, the gamers defend them. They honestly can’t imagine any harm in them. What’s really needed is more research.”

While two of the studies will focus on the hot-button issue of violence, most are geared toward discovering what psychological needs the games fill and what role they can have in education and mass audience entertainment.
In one study planned for this summer, researchers will test the conventional wisdom that interactive learning is more productive than rote. “Everyone assumes children will learn more if they are playing a game,” Ritterfeld says. “But we do not know that because it has never been tested.”

" […] One of the first studies Ritterfeld and colleague Rene Weber initiated involved doing MRI brain scans on 14 gamers while they played Atari’s Tactical Ops. (Because the study was conducted by the neuroscience department at the University of Tubingen in Germany, Ritterfeld had to send for the American version of the game, the German version being markedly less violent.)

The brain impulses of the participants, all young men, were recorded for an hour, a length of time unheard of in MRI research. Typically, Weber says, people who are not being tested for a life-threatening disease can withstand the loud and claustrophobic MRI machine for a maximum of about 20 minutes.
But the gamers, who were asked at regular intervals if they would like to stop, were so focused on the game that they not only made it through the requested hour but almost to a person agreed to do another hour for comparison purposes.
“It was just amazing,” says Weber, who, as the group’s methodologist, has been analyzing the data by comparing, in 24-second intervals, exactly what was on the computer screen with what was going on in the participants’ brains. “It was like they were unaware of anything but the game.”

Although it’s too early to draw definite conclusions, Weber says he thinks “we can see aggression-like brain activity when they play.” One hypothesis, Ritterfeld says, is that some players are just trying to play the game well, while others enjoy the violence."

[By Mary McNamara / Los Angeles Times, Tuesday, June 8, 2004]

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