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#SfN14 highlights: The Neuroscience of Gaming

The definitive version of this post was originally published on November 17, 2014 on the PLOS Neuroscience Community‘s Collaborative coverage of SfN2014, where I serve as an editor.

ME08.The Neuroscience of Gaming. Social Issues Roundtable. Sun Nov 16 2014, 1–3 PM.

The Social Issues Roundtable on the Neuroscience of Gaming brought together four panelists with varied backgrounds, most of whom had an intimate knowledge of both video games and of the recent neuroscience studies that focused on them. The roundtable format meant that, after each panelist had given a brief presentation on their work and ideas, a long questions and answer session with the attendance took place, generating an interesting discussion.

Here are brief overviews of some of the speakers’ talks. My apologies to the speakers that I did not cover. Of course, all inaccuracies or outright misunderstandings in what follows are mine alone.

ME08. An Inside Look on Gaming Design — Daniel Greenberg.

Daniel Greenberg has a legit pedigree as a designer of video games, as he worked for several big-name game companies (yay, Atari!) on several big-name games (does The Lord of the Rings Online ring a bell, anyone?).

Bad Games: Video games are now in a place where comics were in the 1950’s: the focus of mostly negative scrutiny by scientists, physicians, psychologists and public health specialists. The problem with such negative scrutiny is that it might cause society to overlook the positive effects of video games, e.g. practice by doing, experiential learning.

Good Games: Furthermore, game play itself mimics the scientific method: you are first confronted with an unknown system, with which you interact, forming and testing hypotheses and validating or rejecting them depending on the observed results. Games don’t explain, they encourage exploration and building on one’s errors through a tolerance to the consequences of those errors (infinite lives!). Video games train a number of sensorimotor and cognitive skills, especially so-called “shooters”. “Play-fighting” is also an important part of a child’s social development, and video games provide such a form of social play.

Healthy Games: Games have been developed for improving adherence to treatment in cancer (Re:Mission), cognitive-behavioral therapy in depression (SPARX), pain management (SnowWorld). Games have also been used as tools for science (e.g. FoldIt). They have been shown to be effective in well-controlled studies. So these games clearly represent an interesting lead to explore further.

ME08. Advances in Education, Training, and Therapeutic Outcomes Using Games — Adam Gazzaley.

Why is it interesting to use video games in neuroscience research? Dr. Gazzaley’s lab is all about improving cognition in both healthy and impaired people. Current diagnostic and therapeutic approaches for cognitive impairment, but also the educational system, are essentially open-loop approaches that, according to Dr. Gazzaley, are just not good enough. Now, video games have become ubiquitous, and they are examples of closed-loop systems where an agent impacts a system that in turn feeds information back to the agent, allowing them to modify their actions.

Dr. Gazzaley credits Daphne Bavelier, then at the University of Rochester and now at the University of Geneva, Switzerland, with basically creating a whole field, that of studying the positive effects of video games on cognition. Dr. Gazzaley views video games as a tool to harness brain plasticity. He asked this question: can we create a custom-designed video game to enhance cognition in older adults?

Dr. Gazzaley then developed just such a game, Neuroracer, together with people from LucasArts (a famous video game company). Neuroracer featured multitasking, combining a driving task with a perceptual discrimination task. Performance in players of Neuroracer decreased progressively as players were older. However, intense training on the game allowed older adults (60 years old and older) to become even better than naive 20-year-olds. Crucially, this learning effect was maintained over a 6-month period, and the researchers also found transfer of improved performance on other cognitive tasks (a crucial point, since getting better at a video game per se would not bring much improvement to the lives of seniors). The behavioral changes were paralleled by changes in brain rhythms, measured by EEG.

The principles of Neuroracer are now being tested and developed by a R&D company, Akili, composed of LucasArts alumni. FDA approval is being sought.

ME08. When Gaming Goes Too Far: The Negative Implications of Problematic Gaming — Mark Griffiths.

Dr. Griffiths asks the following questions in his work: What do we mean when we talk of video games addiction? Does gaming addiction actually exist? If it does, what are people actually addicted to?

According to him, any behavior is addictive if it fulfills 6 criteria: salience (the total preoccupation with the behavior in someone’s life, such that it becomes one’s single most important thing in life); mood modification; tolerance (more of the behavior is needed to achieve the same mood modification effect); withdrawal; conflict (the most important criterion according to Dr. Griffiths: the compromise to your life—education, work, relationships—caused by the behavior); and relapse. (Dr. Griffiths notes that the newly introduced criteria for internet gaming disorder in the DSM-5 mostly overlap with these.) Generic risk factors that may facilitate online addictions include access, affordability, anonymity, convenience, disinhibition, escape, and social acceptability.

Dr. Griffiths mentioned that, according to those strict criteria, the proportion of people addicted to video games is likely very low. However, according to the approximately 100 studies published on video game abuse so far, excessive or problematic engagement seems to concern 8–12% of young persons, whereas addiction would affect 2–5% of children, teenagers and students. Dr. Griffiths thinks that these numbers are way too high: if that were the case, the problem would be much more visible, and most US cities would have a video game addiction clinics. Part of the problem may lie in the varying and inconsistent definitions of addiction, problematic use etc. across studies. Also, and that is a very important point, almost all those studies were performed on self-selected samples, as opposed to epidemiologically representative samples. Therefore, consensus is required to improve the quality of research in the field and make studies more easy to compare with each other.

Open discussion

The open discussion gave rise to some great exchanges between the audience and the speakers. Here are a few of the questions.

“Could video games, especially ‘sandbox games’ (where the player can interact with the game environment in a non-restrictive fashion, as opposed to games with a very linear progression), be used more prominently in education?”

To sum up the speakers’ answer: They might, but it is really important that both the content and the game design be optimal. Games with a lot of educational content were developed in the 1990’s, but they were not engaging and were therefore mostly ignored by children.

“When we play video games, we ‘become’ and identify with the protagonist the game to some extent. Could video games therefore be used to improve attitudes towards people of different races or sexual orientations?”

Yes, studies with avatars have already been performed and have shown that they indeed improved identification with people of different characteristics.

“What is your favorite game, video or otherwise?” (a gem of a question!)

To Gazzaley, Portal 2 was the best. Mark Griffiths answered Tetris (“because I’m red-hot at it!”). Farah admitted to not having ever played a video game, and Greenberg did not get to answer the question.

What I took home from the session

I was impressed by the large attendance and by the fact that most now agree that video games have a unique potential, both in improving our understanding of cerebral functions, but also in improving brain functions themselves! I also liked the fact that the potentially negative effects of video games (addiction was the most discussed aspect in this roundtable, but violent behaviors or social isolation were also mentioned in passing) are studied with strong underlying investigational and scientific principles, far from fear-mongering and propaganda, but without blinding ourselves to the fact that these negative effects are real.


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