Videos Games and Emerging Neuroscience

A few months ago I found myself in a conversation with my brother about the game Grand Theft Auto. Until that point my only experience with it was through the advertising campaign that plagued the billboards of Toronto in anticipation of it’s release. This naiveness didn’t stop me from having an opinion that I proceeded to impart upon my brother. But before I went too far, I stopped and ask him what it was like. “Is it all just about killing people?” I asked. “No, no, I mean ya you kill people but they come back to life and sometimes you just kill your friends because it’s funny.” 

Me: Is there sex?

Brother: Yes, even prostitutes.

Me: Do people get rapped? 

Brother: No absolutely not. That’s not tolerated.

Me: Are there animals?

Brother: Yup, in the mountains and running wild and you can even have pets. 

Me: Do people ever kill the animals?

Brother: No way, that’s not allowed!

Me: Are there drugs?

Brother: Yup, people smoke marijuana but you aren’t allowed to sell drugs.

Me: How do you get it then?

Brother:  It’s just there whenever you want it.

Me: Makes sense.

I learned a lot about that conversation not the least of which included that gaming — or at least these types of online games — exist as a portal for some real interpersonal interactions. My brother told me about the people he was friends with in the game. I had no idea he could have an online group of friends but he did. They would sit around a chat in between adventures. Sometimes they would have physical fits and this was where sometimes you would just shoot someone for fun but it was all that… in fun. But sometimes there were serious things that came up in conversation. Once, they were hanging out in a room and someone else came in and started harassing one of the women of the group, saying she had no place in the game and to go back to the kitchen. My brother and the others stepped in to defend their friend and banned the new guy from the room, and from their friend group in effect. Later on a relationship crisis arose with one of the group members, in real life. She was distraught and unsure where to turn so she turned to online community, which included my brother. In the process, he helped her figure out the resources in her real-life community.

I was impressed. No longer focusing on the violence of the game (yet definitely not condoning it), I began to focus on the social skills that were being used, and more important, among people from all over the world. This last part I found particularly interesting because despite my active travel routine with having moved away and frequently attending conferences abroad, my brother hasn’t had these same opportunities, yet here he was befriending people all over the world. I was also fascinated by the strict moral code that was present in the game. The psychologist in me was intrigued! 

I have since begun asking questions to the gamers I know and they this week, my curiosity found another outlet when I saw a session at the Society for Neuroscience meeting on “The Neuroscience of Gaming”, which included a panel of experts in the industry including scientists: Martha J. Farah, PhD; Adam Gazzaley, MD, PhD; Mark Griffiths, PhD, and game designer Daniel Greenberg. 

Unfortunately, I was at another session and missed the first half of this panel, which contained most of the good stuff, but I managed to a few things caught my attention nonetheless.


Not all games, gamers, or gaming is the same.

Games like Grand Theft Auto and other reality-like social and action scenarios are one genre indeed. Role playing games are also really popular and then there are other games like Mindcraft that encourage building and construction, shared expertise and resources, and a community of builders. Gamification is another genre of games which is currently being used in wonderful healthcare ways, like rewarding children with diabetes who test their glucose levels regularly with points to redeem at iTunes. On that note both Adam Gazzaley and Daniel Greenberg cautioned that making content delivery look like games was not necessarily gaming but instead, Gazzaley suggested that we could use the same types of game mechanics to develop skills during childhood development and cultivate healthy minds in education, distinct from content-delivery. Similar, Daniel Greenberg also suggested that Mindcraft, despite not being a teaching tool, has done a good job teaching, although I don’t know if there is data to support that. Then of course there are the brain-training genre of games like Lumosity (not Luminosity, FYI) that claim to improve cognitive decline.

There isn’t a lot of research… but it’s coming.

In October of this year, “The Stanford Center on Longevity and the Berlin Max Planck Institute for Human Development gathered many of the world’s leading cognitive psychologists and neuroscientists –people who have dedicated their careers to studying the aging mind and brain– to share their views about brain games and offer a consensus report to the public.” As a result they released a statement on the current state of research in this domain. The full statement can be seen here:http://longevity3.stanford.edu/blog/2014/10/15/the-consensus-on-the-brain-training-industry-from-the-scientific-community-2/ but VERY briefly the consensus was that “To date, there is little evidence that playing brain games improves underlying broad cognitive abilities, or that it enables one to better navigate a complex realm of everyday life. Some intriguing isolated reports do inspire additional research, however.”  Panelist Adam Gazzaley was one of the signers, despite being a games researcher himself.

We all know the claim that violence on TV and in video games leads to more violence. A similar claim exists for aggressive pornography. But the reality is that from a scientific perspective, there is evidence that exists to the contrary as well as in support of those claims. One of the major problems in this field of research is that the the need to distinguish between genres of games (as described above) and skills used/developed in and by the games, which is a necessary component to better understanding how the games may or may not change our brain or behaviour. 

Each of the panelist, if I remember correctly, was in favour of more research, which is great. An unfortunate piece to this was when I heard Martha Farah claim skepticism over an industry doing research on itself when there was a vested interest in the results. Fair enough but “PHARMACEUTICAL INDUSTRIES!!!!” jumped immediately to my mind. Most of our drug research is being driven in exactly that same way, by companies with a huge vested interest. Indeed, two wrongs don’t make a right but are we really going to argue that a vested interest should prevent research? Well, Martha Farah studies neurotics so that’s her role and good to have that person around, indeed!  But right now, without a vested interest, a huge amount of research simply would not happen and, at the same time, the gaming industry has a lot of money to potential invest in such gaming, if the motivation were to rise. Warning statements like that produced by the scientific community may be one such motivator.

Games are all about creating “lazy murders” (words said by Daniel Greenberg during the panel)

Another unfortunate sentiment I detected, particularly upon hearing Martha Farah’s talk, was a hint of negativity directed to the activity of gaming, much like the one I detect when I hear members of an older generation discuss young kids today on their iPhones. Even several colleagues of mine teaching at the university complain about students on their devices during class. Indeed, it’s an issue, but it’s probably not going to change and, as a result, it probably serves us better to learn it and use it to our advantage. As an example, I encourage tweets from students during class if they have a question they don’t feel comfortable asking out loud and I check in on the breaks.

Indeed a negative slant on new activities like gaming might be justified but maintaining only a negative perspective forces a focus on the potential negative outcomes (like violence) and loses a focus on the potential positive outcomes (like new or evolved social or cognitive skills that may in fact be emerging, like questions about why and how moral standards come to exist in such games like Grand Theft Auto, and the health and emotional benefits of online social peer groups). 

In fact, games not only have the potential to hone positive skills sets and brain development but they are also being used to create good in some cases, for example games have been shown to reduce the need for pain killers in children post-chemotherapy and to reduce the scratching and picking in kids with psoriasis. Gazzaley also published a paper in Nature describing the benefits of training for older adults in a driving simulation. Typically, older adults suffer more from the costs of multi-tasking. Newsflash: Multi-tasking itself is NOT benign and comes with costs to our thinking abilities in the form of extra cognitive load, whether we are aged or not. But for older adults these costs are greater. Gazzaley sought to address this problem by training older individuals with the game, NeuroRacer. In this game, participants had to drive while learning to respond to road signs quickly and accurately, as part of the experimental group. Upon doing so for a month of training, the aged adults showed a better capacity for multitasking, along with better attention and better working memory.  These effects were long-lasting (still present when tested at 6 months) and also transferred to other multi-tasking activities. When they looked at the brain activation in the individuals who were trained compared to those who were in the control groups, the trained group showed comparable results to what was observed behaviourally (specifically: enhanced midline frontal theta power and frontal posterior theta coherence). A whole bunch Gazzaley resources are listed below, FYI.

So, in summary

  • Not all games and gaming is the same.
  • There isn’t a lot of research… but it’s coming.
  • Games aren’t all about creating lazy murders

Finally, I couldn’t help but notice that when I walked by the Lumosity booth in the exhibitors aisle today that no one was around their booth, an uncommon scene with almost 40K neuroscientists on the premises. Granted, part of that may have been that they simply didn’t know the lay of the land and had no freebies to hand out, like EVERY other company. Lumosity had nothing to offer… no pun intended. But even if they had something, I wonder if any neuroscientist would have been bold enough to venture over there, which might be a bit unfair. Lumosity, despite it’s bold claims, IS a player on the scene and they have a tonne of data at their disposal, some of which is presented on their research page, which includes both published papers and poster presentations, the latter of which will only be considered credible if the data make their way into peer-reviewed journals. N.B. none of it makes the claims of preventing age-related cognitive decline and neither does their advertising (any more?). Most of it is using brain training games in special populations of people, like cancer patients.

Nonetheless, whether it’s Lumosity, Grand Theft Auto, Mindcraft, Portal, or my current favourite Drop Seven, Free Flow, and Bejewelled, gaming is here and it is inevitably having it’s effects on our brain. I look forward to understanding these games both from a socio-psychological perspective, neuroscience perspective, and if my gaming friend @PLKittyPlay is successful in her convincing, I will also explore from an experiential perspective.  

To read other Society for Neuroscience 2014 Posts please return here.

Further Resources

Closing the Loop between the Brain and Education: Dr. Adam Gazzaley at TEDxASB:

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=qJ_-0Q8KIOQ

Brain: Memory and Multitasking:

http://tedxtalks.ted.com/video/TEDxSanJoseCA-Adam-Gazzaley-MD

NeuroRacer:

http://gazzaleylab.ucsf.edu/neuroracer.html

Gazzaley’s Nature Paper:

http://www.nature.com/nature/journal/v501/n7465/full/nature12486.html

Lumosity Research Page:

http://www.lumosity.com/hcp