Video mind games:
....the images are burned into his long-term memory....
By WILLIAM ILLSEY ATKINSON
Globe and Mail: Saturday, March 13, 2004 -
Jack's killing people for fun. He's not just witnessing repeated simulations of
butchery, battery and strangulation; he's committing make-believe murders
himself, one after the other.
He's only 12, but his parents are at work and have no idea what he's up to. He
has managed to get his hands on Manhunt, a new video game that lets you play a
convict who exacts lethal revenge. For every murder Jack simulates, the game
awards him a nastier weapon.
The boy is into the game now: He's entranced by the gore and suffering on the
screen. But he knows the difference between interactive software and reality,
and he's in charge. Besides, it's just a game. Right?
Wrong. Jack's conscious mind may think it knows the difference between Manhunt
and reality, but the bulk of his brain hasn't a clue. His heart rate is up, his
blood pressure is elevated and brain cells that normally counsel empathy and
restraint are shut down.
The images he sees -- in fact, creates -- are being burned into the same portion
of his brain that holds real memories of horrific scenes. Jack is being changed,
and he is totally unaware of the fact.
Welcome to one of the newest disciplines to appear in science. It's called
video-game neurology, and it's the systematic examination of how electronic
games affect the human brain. This new approach to clinical research is the most
recent application of a non-invasive scanning technique called magnetic
Neurologists have used MRI scanners to determine which parts of the human brain
store short-term memory, solve puzzles and process language. While this research
was intentional, video-game neurology began almost by accident.
It takes several minutes to generate a detailed MRI image of an active brain. To
keep subjects from getting restless inside the scanner, researchers gave them
hand-held video games. After several years of such electronic sedation,
neurologists realized that they had done more than look at brain anomalies or
even map out brain function. They had also caught their subjects' brains in the
act of processing video-game data.
The timing was serendipitous. By 2000, psychologists, sociologists and
neurologists had come to suspect that playing a video game sparks a unique
neurochemistry within the brain. Further, anecdotal evidence had persuaded them
that violent images from video games affect players more than identical images
from movies or television.
The game player doesn't just see a character act violently, notes John Murray, a
psychiatry professor at Kansas State University. In a video game, the player is
the character. That identification makes the effect of game images far more
intense and lingering.
Dr. Murray led a team that recently imaged the working brains of five game
players of both sexes, aged 8 to 13, who were being shown violent images.
Blood flow increased to the youngsters' right brain hemispheres, demonstrating
emotional arousal. Brain areas that sense danger and energize the body for fight
or flight were also activated. Gamers even engaged a section of the prefrontal
cortex that showed they were physically preparing to emulate the blows they
And increased activity in a brain region called the posterior cingulate proved
that the images were being "burned" into storage as vivid, persistent and
traumatic memories. The team concluded that the children retained violent
video-game images in a way that could influence their future behaviour.
In other experiments, game players aged 7 to 17 exhibited elevated blood
pressure, heart rate and norepinephrine (adrenaline) levels -- all part of the
well-known fight-or-flight response.
And in 2002, a team at Johns Hopkins University using an MRI method called
independent component analysis found that video gamers using high-speed driving
simulators deactivate brain areas that sense risk and counsel caution. These
gamers first learned, then reinforced, two lessons: Faster is better, and peril
can successfully be ignored.
According to recent testimony by Dr. Murray before the U.S. Senate, such
specious lessons may readily be extended into real life. Video-game neurology,
he said, shows that the brain "treats entertainment violence as something real .
. . [and] stores this violence as long-term memory."
The vividness of the gaming experience, an effect for which game makers strive,
may amplify the learning effect. Research funded by Iowa State University
suggests that the orientation reflex, which puts the brain into perceptual
overdrive when startled by a sudden stimulus such as a bright flash or a loud
sound, occurs in the brains of video gamers as often as in the brains of
soldiers in combat.
Normal kids in normal homes aren't about to become killers after playing video
games, Craig Anderson, a professor of psychology at Iowa State, says
reassuringly. But Dr. Anderson, whom the Boston Globe calls the "pre-eminent
researcher on the effect of exposure to violent video games" in the United
States, cautions that violent games may increase the likelihood of an
excessively aggressive response to a neutral stimulus such as being jostled in a
Ontario has put an R rating on Manhunt, denying its lease or sale to anyone
under 18, and the game is banned outright in New Zealand. But anywhere else, any
kid old enough to use a game controller can plug in and start murdering. Even in
Ontario, there's little to stop an underaged player from using Manhunt once the
game is in the house. And that's assuming 100-per-cent compliance by video shops
in enforcing the R rating at point of purchase.
In the United States, whose culture sometimes seem to rank freedom of individual
choice and expression above abstract concepts such as communal good, steps by
some state and municipal governments to limit the sale of these ultra-violent
games are consistently thwarted in the courts by game manufacturers.
Despite these setbacks, a consensus is emerging among educators and neurologists
that enshrining the rights of game makers without considering the consequences
to children makes as much sense as protecting the rights of street-drug vendors
to ply their trade.
Scientists deriving the new video-game brain data seem to speak equally as
parents and as researchers. Interestingly, it's not just brutal games such as
Manhunt, Max Payne or Grand Theft Auto that concern them.
Michael Rich, director of the Center on Media and Child Health at Boston
Children's Hospital, thinks that even non-violent games may teach kids dangerous
responses. Dr. Rich has seen his son play snowboarding games whose
player-characters hit rock walls, shake themselves off and keep going. He
wonders if that encourages his son to snowboard less safely on real slopes.
The neurological news isn't all bad. For example, action-packed video games make
useful probes into abnormal brains.
Boys with disruptive brain disorder display a range of antisocial actions, from
persistent rule breaking to animal torture and pyromania. MRI brain scans of DBD
youths, taken as they play video games, show the physiological roots of their
antisocial actions. The troubled adolescents display reduced brain activity in
frontal-lobe areas that control behaviour, focus attention and govern other
functions critical to social interaction. Video-game neurology thus gives
science a window into the workings of a young offender's mind.
As well, video-game neurology has shed light on the normal brain. The technique
is being used to explore a subtle social function: human altruism. What makes
most of us trust, befriend and help one another? Why is violence, even toward
strangers, the exception rather than the rule? What motivates a Good Samaritan?
Scientists at the Emory University Medical School recently took MRI brain scans
of 17 volunteers playing a video version of The Prisoner's Dilemma, a game that
gives players top rewards for betraying a colleague who trusts them. Players
receive a lesser award if they remain true to each other, and no reward at all
if they trust and are betrayed. Yet, despite the known benefits of leaving
someone else holding the bag, the most common outcome in The Prisoner's Dilemma
is mutual trust and co-operation.
Why? The Emory scientists' magnetic-resonance images point the way to an answer.
They show increased activity in the game-players' nucleus accumbens,
ventromedial frontal cortex, orbitofrontal cortex, caudate nucleus and rostral
anterior cingulate cortex. All these areas assess various action options, and
choose those that maximize reward. Some of these rewards are material, but some
are not. Social co-operation, the Emory scientists concluded, intrinsically
pleases us. It switches on a "reward circuit" that is hardwired into the human
Next, the scientists want to use video-game neurology to discover the cerebral
mechanisms of drug addition and other antisocial behaviours. They think that the
behaviours may stem from improper regulation of impulses, or a flawed assessment
of social reward.
The implications are clear. First, the normal brain's natural state may be not
conflict but co-operation. Second, most sociopathy may be the product of a
malfunctioning brain. And third, perhaps it's time for society to curtail
whatever games change functioning brains into malfunctioning ones.
William Illsey Atkinson is a North Vancouver science writer.