Gamer to the Core

As everyone who has ever played against me in Super Smash Brothers knows, some people are better than others at video games.  What most people don’t realize, is that under laboratory conditions, controlling for age, experience, comfort level, game type, etc, this common observation holds up.  Recent research published in Cerebral Cortex indicates that this relates to an actual physiological difference in the brain.

This unseemly game from the early 80’s called Space Fortress has long been the instrument of choice for psychologists when testing skills like memory, adaptability, and reaction speed.  The United States and Israeli air forces have even used it to determine the training paths of would-be cadets.  The graphics are awful, as you can tell, but the gameplay is supposed to be challenging and multi-dimensional.  I have to say, I find this hard to believe (I can’t find a java version online anywhere), but I’ll have to roll with that premiss.  Anyway, researchers Arthur Kramer and Kirk Erikson collected forty students between the ages of 18 and 28, taught them the mechanics and rules of the game, stuck them in an MRI, and asked them to play their hearts out.  At the conclusion of the study, each subject clocked over three hundred three-minute gaming sessions under an MRI (15 hours of Space Fortress sounds terrible – this sort of abuse raises all types of ethical questions).

After analyzing the imagery, Kramer and Erikson discovered those who learned the game fastest and who were the most effectively adaptive, had the largest striata. Those who found the game particularly challenging, as you might guess, had diminutive striata.  The striatum is comprised of two sectors of brain matter located in the cerebrum.  It is usually associated with executive function and stimuli evoking feelings of reward, but also is shown to be reactive to intense or unexpected events.  The researchers concluded that people with larger striata should perform better at multitasking and some styles of learning than their smaller counterparts.  Unanswered by the study, but certainly most fascinating, is whether or not people are born with large striata, or if excessive utilization of that region of the brain results in its growth.  That would surely cause a collective foot-in-mouth moment for parents everywhere who berate their children about the brain rotting effects of video games.  Fortunately, researchers say that it’s not all about the size of the striatum.  For those not as well endowed, perseverance can still make you a winner.


~ by Wil Finley on January 20, 2010.

2 Responses to “Gamer to the Core”

  1. On the topic of video games rotting your brain: I have long taken exception with that sentiment, as I have learned many things about life and living through video games. WoW taught me how to save money and multitask, GTA taught me never to give up… that I can have anything if I’m willing to work hard enough and do the stuff other people wont, RPG’s have taught me how to organize my self perception and desire to make improvements, I even think FPS games have actually helped with my aim, not to mention the how much games like Mario and whatnot help improve reaction times… With the advent of the Wii (especially Wii Fit) the ol’ games rot your brain adage will no loner even be considered anywhere close to accurate. I also think I read somewhere recently that video games are actually pushing the boundaries in technology and are one of the major driving forces behind innovation…

    Another interesting fact, with the advent of the remote controlled drones in the military gamers are actually a pretty hot item right now because they require little training to learn to fly one of them…

    Finally, I think a Super Smash tournament may be in order to do some… further research on this topic, and on the topic of your superiority. My hypothesis is this: “I will kick your ass at the most recent incarnation of Super Smash Brothers.” It needs to be tested.

    • You would crush me at the newer one for sure. I’m old-school with my Smash Brothers. You make a good point about the greater and greater need for unmanned aircraft pilots. I’m definitely thinking drones and other unmanned combat vehicles are going to be the workhorses of the military of the future, eventually outnumbering normal field personnel. Uncle Sam has got a 20 million man army as soon as he can can build all the hardware.

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