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Beyond the visual, emotional, and sexual response in games, there is an even more primal desire in humans: to recognise patterns and finish tasks. The best example here is from real-time strategy games, where a gamer invests time in building up a fortune or amassing an army, and then feels obligated to finish the level. The same concept applies to gambling, where someone might play a slot machine for ten minutes, investing time and money, and then feel obligated to keep playing.
“We are generally competitive by nature,” says Bill Jenk, co-founder of Scientific Learning and BrainSparkLearning.com, companies that aim to improve brain capability using educational games. “A sense of movement and accomplishment generally makes us feel good about ourselves.”
“The human mind, seeking to make sense of reality, and searching out patterns to help organise information, constructs its own personal map of metaphors that is continually expanding and evolving with experience,” says Masinter, explaining that there is an innate desire in us to organise the world. This is borne out in brain scans that show how the hippocampus and other parts of the brain tend to organise information. Jenk says the human brain is unique in that it is constantly looking for ways to make sense out of chaos, completing tasks as a way to organise the world.
Once again, designers would do well to tap into these innate desires. It has what has made Tetris one of the most compelling games of all time – the brain is charging neurons and reinforcing cell structures as you lock falling game pieces into one another. In one study, conducted in 2009 by the University of Southern California (USC) and test labs in the US, patients who played Tetris over a three-month period had noticeably improved cell structures. Jenk, who has trained in neuroscience and psychobiology, says it stands to reason that more complex games with higher-level decision-making would even further improve brain capability and pattern matching.
That’s good news for any gamers who have ever wondered if slashing through a dungeon had any scientific benefit. Jenk says this brain improvement comes with a warning, though – that while playing for long periods is not technically harmful, it means you might over-focus on one particular brain activity.
Regardless of any such caveats, modern research is increasingly showing that playing videogames has emotional, visual, and scientific value, tapping into our innate desires and providing engaging, fully-realised wish fulfillment.
A) Frontal lobe
The strategy gaming lobe, in which future consequences are recognised and good and bad actions are judged. It’s also the lobe responsible for suppressing anti-social behaviour. If you’ve ever been called a “n00b,” tell your accuser that his frontal lobe has atrophied.
B) Parietal lobe
The parietal lobe takes the sensory information coming from elsewhere in the brain and combines it, allowing you to navigate space and manipulate objects. Without the parietal, not only would you fail every jump in Portal, you wouldn’t even be able to use your mouse.
C) Temporal lobe
Not the lobe responsible for time travel, sadly. The temporal lobe’s main function is speech, which isn’t often called for in gaming, but it also handles auditory processing and is key in long-term memory. Remember how great your favourite game is?
D) Occipital lobe
The visual processing centre of the mammalian brain, responsible for visuospatial processing, colour discrimination and motion perception. If you can headshot a moving target in Modern Warfare 2, thank your occipital lobe.
These scans show the brain development of an adolescent girl after three months of practice in playing Tetris, everyone’s favourite visual-spatial problem-solving game.
A) Getting thicker
The red areas mark regions of increase in cortical thickness, a fundamental change to the physical structure of the brain.
B) Go green
This small area of green marks blood-oxygen-level dependent (BOLD) signal increase.
C) Not so bold
Blue marks areas of BOLD signal decrease, a change in the function in the brain.
Our pick of the games most likely to change, push or expand your brain…
Spatial awareness is essential to being good at gaming, but never more so than in Portal, where obstacles are overcome through canny positioning of teleports. While ‘Now you’re thinking with portals’ might not be relevant in the real world, recent research by Vanderbilt University has discovered that just ten hours of gaming can make you better at navigation. Play Portal and never be lost again.
No game has re-wired our brains quite like Braid. Starting gently with the simple ability to rewind time, its worlds gradually introduce new twists: objects unaffected by time travel, timeflow linked to your movement, cooperation with versions of yourself from other timelines. By the end, you’re solving puzzles that at the game’s start would have seemed impossible.
Not only does it strengthen cell structures in the brain, but recent studies by Oxford University have shown that Tetris can even help reduce flashbacks after traumatic events by busying the parts of the brain responsible for visuospatial mental images during ‘memory consolidation.’ In other words, it distracts the brain and helps you forget.
There’s a point in strategy games where the scale becomes so large and complex that the main resource you’re playing with isn’t money, or wood, or Tiberium, but your own brain power. Supreme Commander takes your brain to its limit and then goes further, forcing you to think harder about your economy, faster about your units, than any other game like it. It forces you to level-up your brain.
Music has been shown to strengthen a lot of areas in brain, as well as aiding in memory, but it’s not magic. It’s science. No game is better at plugging you directly into music than Audiosurf. Playing involves just slight shifts of the mouse to steer, but as the tracks bop to the beat, and you swirl around collecting colours, you’re using more parts of your brain than if you were just listening.
Mar 9, 2010
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