From Brain to Game

A recent article published online by Edge magazine raises an interesting prospect in gaming; the use of neuroscience in the research and development of games. The article focuses on the possible replacement of violence in games with something more acceptable that gives players the same thrill. While this is an interesting prospect the more general use of neuroscience in the gaming industry could be a real possibility for the future. In an earlier post I described gaming as being intrinsically linked to the advancement of technology but perhaps, in the future, gaming will be linked to advances in our understanding of the brain and what goes on in there when we enjoy a game.

You can probably name the types of games you like, give examples and even go so far as to break these games down into the aspects that you particularly enjoyed and those that you didn’t care for; but when pushed, can you articulate precisely what makes a game fun? This is the challenge for game developers the world over, to create a game that consumers will enjoy. It therefore seems logical that developing an understanding of such enjoyment could lead to the development of better video games. This is the prize that neuroscience can offer. And research into video gaming isn’t even that big a leap, games have already been used in neuroscience. Maguire et al. (2009), for example, used an adapted version of the game The Getaway to examine the brain activity of London taxi drivers as they navigated the virtual streets. This was a landmark paper in the study of human spatial navigation but it also demonstrates that games can be used in laboratory experiments, in fact, they are well suited to MRI (magnetic resonance imaging) studies that require the subject to keep their head still. Neuroscience in gaming could allow developers to understand what has made successful games so popular, perhaps by taking components of these games (such as violence) and examining their effect on gamers’ brains. In terms of development, new game mechanic designs could be tested similarly and their probable success determined from comparisons with already established mechanics.

I would volunteer to be a test subject.

So why has neuroscience yet to be utilised by gaming? Part of it (possibly a big part) is the vast amount of money that would be required to undertake such a project, with no guarantee of return. Chris Stevens talking to Edge magazine claims that:

“The first game publisher which buys an MRI scanner will make its money back in publicity”

but those who can afford such equipment are already successful and may therefore lack the incentive to invest in such an ambitious venture. Proof of concept may also be required before investment is made and perhaps other industries such as advertising will need to adopt a neuroscience approach before the games industry dives in.

There are also ethical issues that need to be noted. An understanding of the brain could lead to its exploitation. In his book The Decisive Moment (a.k.a. How We Decide) Jonah Lehrer describes how mortgage lenders and credit card companies have exploited flaws in the human psyche to sell consumers products that they cannot afford. While there has been no direct use of neuroscience by these industries it is conceivable that such exploitation could be used in any industry with an understanding of the brain. Even if a games developer has no unethical intentions they could unwittingly make a game that is tailored so perfectly to enjoyment that it becomes addictive. Games that already exist have been shown to cause addiction in some people. Tapping into the reward and pleasure centres of the brain could be a slippery slope and perhaps games developers that utilise neuroscientific research will go too far before they realise their mistake. We are already surrounded by advertising that uses psychology to make a sale but perhaps using neuroscience will be taking that principle too far.

Addicted anyone?

The potential to develop better, more enjoyable and perhaps more socially acceptable games through neuroscience surely exists. It is only a matter of time before one non-scientific industry or another uses neuroscience and eventually I believe games will too. We must be careful though, there are dangers to using such knowledge that may not be realised until it’s too late. So much is still unknown about the brain that exploiting it too early may prove damaging. Neuroscience can be used in games but, only time will tell whether it should be used or not.