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Video game prowess is all in your head

By

January 28, 2010

Schematic diagram of the Space Fortress video game seen by the participants (Image: Rensse...

Schematic diagram of the Space Fortress video game seen by the participants (Image: Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute)

If you’re the kind of person that seems to struggle every time you pick up a gaming controller you might need to blame your brain - which probably isn’t much of a consolation. Researchers say they can predict a person's performance on a video game simply by measuring the volume of a specific part of the brain.

The part of the brain in question is a collection of structures tucked deep inside the cerebral cortex called the stratium. A new study has found that this area profoundly influences a person’s ability to refine his or her motor skills, learn new procedures, develop useful strategies, and adapt to a quickly changing environment – all things that are crucial when playing video games.

Past research has shown that expert video gamers outperform novices on many basic measures of attention and perception — even when novices practice the game for twenty hours or more. Those findings led researchers to explore whether pre-existing differences in brain structure play a role in video game performance.

Based on animal studies, the team of researchers zeroed in on three brain structures: the caudate nucleus and the putamen in the dorsal striatum, and the nucleus accumbens in the ventral striatum.

“Our animal work has shown that the striatum is a kind of learning machine — it becomes active during habit formation and skill acquisition,” said Ann Graybiel, an Institute Professor at MIT, Investigator at the McGovern Institute for Brain Research and co-principal investigator on the study. “So it made a lot of sense to explore whether the striatum might also be related to the ability to learn in humans.”

The researchers used high-resolution magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) to analyze the size of these brain regions in healthy adults who had spent less than three hours a week playing video games in the previous two years. Participants were then trained on Space Fortress, a video game developed at the University of Illinois that requires players to try to destroy a fortress without losing their own ship to one of several potential hazards.

Half of the study participants were asked to focus on maximizing their overall score in the game while paying equal attention to the various components of the game. The other participants had to periodically shift priorities, improving their skills in one area for a period of time while also maximizing their success at the other tasks. The latter approach, called “variable priority training,” encourages the kind of flexibility in decision-making that is commonly required in daily life, according to Arthur Kramer, a professor of psychology at the Beckman Institute for Advanced Science and Technology at the University of Illinois, and other co-principal investigator on the study.

The researchers found that players who had a larger nucleus accumbens did better than their counterparts in the early stages of the training period, regardless of their training group. According to Kirk Erickson, a professor of psychology at the University of Pittsburgh and lead author on the study, this makes sense, because the nucleus accumbens is part of the brain’s reward center, and a person’s motivation for excelling at a video game includes the pleasure that results from achieving a specific goal.

Players with a larger caudate nucleus and putamen did best on the variable priority training. Those with the largest structures “learned more quickly and learned more over the training period,” Kramer said.

“This study tells us a lot about how the brain works when it is trying to learn a complex task,” Erickson said. “We can use information about the brain to predict who is going to learn certain tasks at a more rapid rate.”

The researchers say that by identifying the parts of the brain that become especially active when learning complex tasks will help guide the development of new learning strategies in the future. I’m wondering if the research couldn’t be used for early testing of youngsters looking to break into the lucrative professional gaming scene in South Korea.

The study, “Striatal volume predicts level of video game skill acquisition,” appears in the journal Cerebral Cortex.

About the Author
Darren Quick Darren's love of technology started in primary school with a Nintendo Game & Watch Donkey Kong (still functioning) and a Commodore VIC 20 computer (not still functioning). In high school he upgraded to a 286 PC, and he's been following Moore's law ever since. This love of technology continued through a number of university courses and crappy jobs until 2008, when his interests found a home at Gizmag.   All articles by Darren Quick
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