Your brain on games

You’re standing in a dank dungeon, looking for a door that doesn’t exist. The lights flicker, and you hear the raging scream of a distant enemy. Flump, flump – the steps are getting closer. Arming yourself with your favourite weapon, you peer around a corner in the low light and you see him: the Big Daddy. By this time in the game, you have crossed over a mysterious threshold – your brain has mapped itself into the undersea world of Rapture and all you care about is saving your own skin. An intensely choreographed game, BioShock has a deep emotional resonance.

For the past few decades, computer games have tapped into a core instinct for survival, power, control, lust and emotional connection. There is a science to game development, and the best designers know how to create believable game worlds, auditory experiences and ever-evolving challenges that lure us into investing time and emotional energy in completing a game.

These scientific principles – visual immersion, emotional response, sexual attraction – not only explain why you prefer certain styles of game (such as multiplayer as opposed to single-player), but who you are as a person. In short, games reveal our desire to perform and complete tasks. Several different areas of science are required to explain our motivations and desires, and what makes a game worth playing.

Your brain and the game world

At the most base level, a game is an immersive experience. We ‘cross over’ in a first-person shooter and become Gordon Freeman, choosing our weapons and determining an optimal path through a ransacked office corridor. Ed Del Castillo, who produced the original Command & Conquer and is the co-founder of Liquid Entertainment, says there is an invisible window in every game, and that these windows are ‘smudgy’ when they introduce elements such as unrealistic sounds or objects that lessen the sense of immersion. Yet once enthralled, gamers inhabit the game world – the brain transfers our persona into the screen.

Research backs this up. Del Castillo has studied brainwave scans that show how the entire brain is engaged when playing a game. He splits gamers into two distinct categories: subjective gamers and objective gamers. Subjective gamers – those who are more visual and are willing to accept fantasy – are the ones who become more immersed. In brain scans, these gamers show activity in all regions of the brain – emotional response, intellectual connection. Objective gamers – those who love to calculate the odds in a strategy game or prefer 2D casual games – show engagement in the Limbic System region, where we process the deepest thoughts, but do not show as much total brain activity.

Philip Tan, the director of the MIT Gambit lab ( in Boston, says game immersion works because rules and physical laws – those we accept as social norms or have become part of human nature – are the same in the real world as they are in games. They coexist.

“No one believes the dragon is real, but if we lose a battle in the game, we really do lose,” says Tan. “There is no confusion about whether we have lost. This is why the line between fantasy and reality is so easily crossed. There is a training process – as you press a button to swing a sword, you see the visual feedback, you realise if you swing the sword someone will get hurt.”

Effective immersion requires visual trickery, but it’s about more than just photorealistic graphics. Tan explains that the tactile response in games – hit button, swing sword – is something some people gravitate toward quickly while others do not. For some, immersion also requires a more cocooned environment where there are few distractions that will pull you out of the fantasy.

Visual trickery, sonic cues

“If you can’t hear anything but the ambient game sounds, you can’t see anything but the game world, you’re a lot more likely to immerse,” says Mark O’Green, a game designer and book author who helped create the original Fallout franchise. O’Green explains that designers often use pan and quick zoom effects to simulate how we see the real world and to trick the brain into thinking the game is real. That’s why an effect such as the ‘roadie-run’ in Gears of War – where your character sprints while crouched down low – seems so realistic. We suddenly break into a faster stride, the camera zooms back, and a slight touch of motion blur completes the illusion. Every game has a good chance at immersion, mostly because we are prepared to accept the illusion as real.

“It’s amazing how we can pick up a book, read a few lines of text, and with this alone find ourselves on a deserted island, or a distant planet,” says Celeste Masinter, a game design instructor at the Art Institute of Tampa. “If the audience is predisposed to believe, very little is needed to convince. But a game provides all kinds of visual, audio, and even tactile cues, which further enrich the experience.”

Del Castillo believes that the most poorly rated games are those that fail to suspend belief. They instil a false sense of realism, perhaps by giving the gamer too much power – or not enough of it. He argues that there is a chain of events in the best games that goes from camera (the view of the game world) to character (the vicarious experience of instilling your own persona into the game) to controller (pressing a button and seeing an appropriate action) and back to the camera (what you see in the game). The best games follow this process perfectly. Del Castillo gives as an example the first Tomb Raider, where gamers would experience this transference by leaning back and then arching up in their chairs as Lara Croft climbed a wall. This reflected the camera/character/controller process. Ever leaned in your seat while taking a corner in a racing game? Same thing.

As well as our visual immersion in games, there is also an emotional response – a trigger that makes us care about a plot change or a new character development. Typical examples of this can be seen in games such as Dragon Age: Origins, where you might have to decide whether to kill an ally or have two girlfriends at once. Del Castillo believes that emotional response in games is still in an early state – games tend to use extremes to engage the gamer, such as the controversial ‘No Russian’ level in Call of Duty: Modern Warfare 2, where you take part in a terrorist attack at an airport. As gamers, he says, we are not accustomed to subtle emotional situations. “These emotional decisions are heavy handed because, as an industry, we are not very good at it yet.”

Del Castillo argues that this will improve over time. He equates emotional response in games to the Pavlov’s Dog experiment, where the subtle introduction of meat powder, and eventually just the appearance of the person who brought the powder, caused the dog in the experiment to salivate. Emotions in games can work in the same way: gamers can become emotionally conditioned, and learn to accept more subtle triggers. Current research backs this up: Del Castillo says that there is an actual chemical change in the brain that occurs with emotional response, and that designers should learn to tap into these triggers.

Celeste Masinter thinks games are inherently emotional – they elicit a response to character, story, and visuals. She says the best games create a level of anxiety that forces the gamer to make tough decisions, often within a set time limit, then raise the stakes even higher by introducing conflict. “The brain wants to make sense of reality, but conflicting information makes this stressful,” she says.

Sexual attraction in games

One intense emotion we feel in games is lust – and designers have learned to tap into our innate desires in the Tomb Raider series and many other games over the years. Del Castillo says part of sexual attraction in games has to do with control – we want to be the most powerful and most attractive person we can be, and that attraction is often equated with confidence and prowess in games. He also says there is a desire to bring order to chaos, and that sexual tensions and conflicts in multiplayer games tap into this primal need for us to display our dominance. This is especially true in social gaming, where we prove our capabilities in a public setting. Interestingly, Tan says that it is not the actual pixels on the screen that form the sexual desire but these lower-level desires to appear in control and in power, to rule over the lesser minions.

“Games also invite you to step into the shoes of someone you are not,” says Tan. “There are very strong women shown as being very capable - such as in the game Beyond Good & Evil. Humans are wired to respond to attractive humans. And there are genetic markers [in attractive people] that show we are better survivors. One classic example of this is that women with bigger hips  have a wider birth canal and thus fewer problems with childbirth.”


  • bonerachieved - March 10, 2010 11:03 p.m.

    wowzas this was a fun read. Great article guys!
  • AnonymouZ - March 10, 2010 8:25 p.m.

    oh my science and videogames... 2 of my favorite things. and the softcore level of it all nonetheless (which is my lvl on both)
  • Yaro - March 10, 2010 2:05 p.m.

    Thanks, very interesting article. Immersion is the best thing in games IMO, Far Cry 2 did that perfectly for example =) recaptcha: the spandex
  • EnragedTortoise1 - March 10, 2010 1:45 p.m.

  • drako691 - March 10, 2010 11:16 a.m.

    i am so showing this to any anti-gamers out there and are you guys doing some kind of special on how games can help your brain or something? theres been like 3 articles on that in the past three days
  • shinkeidei - March 10, 2010 3:02 a.m.

    WOW, This is probably of of the best articels on gaming I've read during this short lived year, along with the rat in a cage guys really came out to defend our hobby...
  • Tochy - March 10, 2010 3:02 a.m.

    i r agree with aberkromby
  • aberkromby - March 10, 2010 2:54 a.m.

    They associated 'No Russian' with shock value? there was absolutely no shock in that level whatsoever. That level failed , for one reason: Almost all the deaths in that level are scripted. Most of the civilians will die at the same time and with the same death animation whether the PC shoots them or not. Usually, they just die randomly, an npc shoots in their general direction (but clearly misses) and they die instantly. It may as well have been a cutscene. seriously, infinity ward only made that level for attention, not immersion.
  • JackSkellingtonsSkin - March 10, 2010 1:58 a.m.

    I sure like my women with wide hips, it's a real turn on knowing that there would be no problems at child birth.
  • GoldenMe - March 10, 2010 1:12 a.m.

    It's this week Top 7, only fancier.
  • garnsr - March 10, 2010 12:50 a.m.

    These magazine-type articles with interviews always come from the UK. It seems like a throwback now, with the other GR stuff being so different in style.
  • Ultra64 - March 10, 2010 12:33 a.m.

    wow this article was actualy pretty awsome. i found it pretty interesting about "immersing the player" and the types of games that can help your brain. also@Cyberninja you can get audiosurf of steam
  • Cyberninja - March 10, 2010 12:28 a.m.

    where can i find audiosurf? and i love tetris next time i should study will play tetris and say i studied
  • penguinsrule3 - March 10, 2010 12:21 a.m.

    I'm going to use this article against my anti-gaming teacher. Thanks GR.
  • nik41507 - March 10, 2010 12:17 a.m.

    This remonds me of my Science book
  • TKTOWA - March 9, 2010 11:55 p.m.

    Violent games like Nanobreaker affect my entire brain by keeping it from exploding.

Showing 1-16 of 16 comments

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