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Your brain on games

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, 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.