Making Games Change Brains
August 6, 2012, SIGGRAPH, Los Angeles—Jane McGonigal from the Institute for the Future described ongoing research that relates game play with changes in the brain. She made an effort to dispel the commonly held notion that playing games is a waste of time.
A perceived problem is that people change their lives to play computer and video games. The challenge, is to make games that can change lives. To look into this issue we must split our perceptions of art and science. Her personal ratio is about 23 percent art and the balance in science.
In a parallel vein, we look at the parallels of art and science with destiny and independence. If destiny, the notion of being forced into an action, is a similar ratio as art and science, then most of our actions are a result of our ability to make our own environments and decisions.
So we need to look at what changes are required in tools to make an impact on our own internal abilities for self-determination. Games can be one of the tools that change functions in a way that can map to various challenges in our lives. Therefore, games are the art of shaping peoples' destiny and the science of getting ways to achieve new destinies.
We now take for granted that people will interact with various screens, but we often wonder if computer delivered content is able to change our brains. That question is addressed at the website; http://blog.superbetter.com/show-me-the-science-resilience-games-post-traumatic-growth-and-more/ where scientific rigor is used to investigate various claims about brain plasticity.
Many people consider games to be a waste of time. At the same time researchers have found that the number one regret for people nearing the end of their lives is; I worked too hard. Second was staying in touch with friends, followed by be happier. The fourth largest regret was the courage to express your true self, and finally, live to my own dreams and not to that of others.
Working too hard translates into I wish I spent more time with my family. An alternative to missing contact with friends is the emerging social and game websites which provide management tools for relationships. The players of casual games indicate that this play is better than drugs for dessert.
The availability of avatars provides people with the ability to express themselves and their dreams, in a different world. This last capability helps to increase confidence in people and even allows autistic children to interact with others within the game environment.
To provide another perspective, McGonigal provided a personal experience. She had a concussion which led to fairly serious brain injury. As a result, she had very diminished physical and mental capabilities, and got so depressed by the state that she considered suicide. When the normal medical interventions provided no relief, she decided to create a new game.
This game was a fairly simple shooter where the mental difficulties and challenges were represented by simple structures that you had to slay. The actions required to slay the bad guys—bright lights and large spaces—called for fairly standard game functions, calling upon allies, acquiring power ups, and increasing experience points. The results were positive, she no longer wanted to commit suicide and found the determination and energy to work to regain her mental functions.
That game has evolved since something now called Super Better which users described as being helpful in feeling stronger and braver, having better relations with friends and family. Although many of these responses are anecdotal, research is showing that the brain is capable of post-traumatic growth.
In fact, this post-traumatic growth will also address the basis for the top five regrets in peoples' lives. Trauma can lead to growth, but growth can also come without the trauma. The key is to develop specific strengths or resilience as they relate to your life and well-being. The four main areas of resilience are: physical resilience, mental resilience, emotional resilience, and social resilience.
Improving physical resilience requires an increase in physical activity, just don't sit still. Mental resilience increases your willpower and exercising your mental resilience provides similar benefits as exercising your muscles. Developing realistic optimism is a strength with positive feedback to other areas in your brain.
Emotional resilience builds upon activities in our brain pleasure centers as a result of positive emotions. These emotions include curiosity, love, surprise, and almost anything else that doesn't carry a negative connotation. In general, research has found that having more positive than negative emotions leads to increased abilities to succeed and enables a person to exude energy. A minimum ratio of three positive to one negative emotion future onto the right track and more positive emotions are additive until you get the ratio of 12 to 1.
Social resilience makes people stronger by using the positive energy of others in the community. Scientists have measured increases in Oxytocin in the brain as a result of people touching others for at least 6 seconds. Social resilience also helps us handle stress better, possibly through increased levels of trust.
So how exactly do games change people? When we look at demographics, 99 percent of boys and 98 percent of girls under the age of 18, accumulate over 10,000 hours of gameplay time by the time they are 21. This is approximately the same amount of time they've spent in middle and high school.
One criticism of gamers is that they live in a virtual world, and spend as much time playing games as they spend in school. To most people, virtual means not real. However, if we look at the roots of the word virtual comes from virtuo, meaning to produce an effect. Therefore, we should consider virtual, not as real or not, but as actualized. Games plant seeds of possibilities.
Some of the positive emotions resulting from gameplay include: relief, love, surprise, pride, curiosity, excitement, all and wonder, contentment, and interestingly enough creativity. Gamers can pull out at any time in the not playing the game, but one study noted that gamers measure much higher on the creativity scale than non-gamers.
These results may be due to the fact that gamers spend 80 percent of the time failing. Although gamers seem to be overstimulating the pleasure centers, MRI studies show that the reward centers are most active when trying something new or at a moment of hope, and not from overall play. In fact, passive observers do not record as much brain activity as though those who are actively engaged.
Studies show that games enhance coping strategies, and most improvements peak out at between three and four hours of games. The only activity which shows better results is a 5 to 6 hours of work in the gym. It seems that casual games perform better than drugs in helping people cope with anxiety and depression. For children going through chemotherapy, playing a minimum of two hours of a relevant game improves remission rates and chemotherapy protocol adherence. These behavioral changes are the result of improved psychological perspective on the disease.
In moving into the information age, we may have permanently changed the nature of the human brain. We now have an entire generation of people who have changed the definition of what is possible, and those of us who have seen this transition now consider some of these people to have superpowers. The brain functions are no longer changing at an evolutionary rate, but at a rate more akin to Moore's law.