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NeuroChems avatar 12:20 PM on 06.14.2011  (server time)
CONSCIOUSTOID #2: When I was your age…

I think it’s safe to assume that every gamer has some experience with a real-time strategy game of some fashion. For me, Command & Conquer: Red Alert was the first game I played online. Likewise, every gamer had a buddy who played Starcraft and made them at least try it. Being more of a console man myself, there was something about using your brain on a large scale that had me going to my buddy’s house to play Red Alert on his computer (mine sucked too much). Suffice to say, they are not easy. Even the much simpler early generation games of the genre were by no means a cakewalk and if you just don’t have the knack for it, no difficulty setting is going to save you. As such, the multi-tasker’s paradises of these games have been used to study the acquisition of complex skills. But you can’t just study these things in normal gamers…where’s the fun in that, right? Segue…

The Study: Researchers in Texas tasked 15 female and 5 male seniors (average age = 70, 62-75 years) to train for a total of 23.5 hours over 5 weeks at Rise of Nations: Gold Edition. Set on the easiest difficulty, game performance was measured by the completion of skirmishes and the total game time. Concurrent with this, high-resolution structural MRI images were taken of the participants to see if there was any relationship between the game performance and the volumes of functionally related brain structures.

The Results: To set the scene, the overall time to complete games reduced 55% over the course of the 23.5 hours, but the speed with which the participants physically moved the mouse and pressed keys did not change. The meat and potatoes of the study though were the areas found significantly larger with the MRI in relation to improvements in game time. The medial frontal gyrus, dorsolateral prefrontal cortex, anterior cingulate cortex, motor cortex, premotor cortex, and []cerebellum[/url] are the key players.

My two cents: This is your brain on games. Apologies for the technicality, but this study also gives a snapshot of a young brain playing video games in a general sense. Contrary to popular belief, old people are humans too. If you clicked the links like you’re supposed to, you may have noticed a pattern. “Executive function”, or: planning, decision-making, abstract thinking, rule acquisition, appropriate muscle action initiation and inhibition, and selecting relevant sensory information. Yup. Sounds like video games to me. Some of these areas, in particular the anterior cingulate cortex, are also involved in heart rate, blood pressure, reward anticipation, empathy, and emotion. Sounds even more like games now, doesn’t it? Now when you notice these responses the next time you play you’re going to think of an old lady playing Rise of Nations. I’ve ruined video games for everybody.

The Ask: How into your games do you get? If you do get right into a good game, do you find your responses stronger than other media, like a movie? Are you the gamer who games for the mindless hack 'n slash, or are you the gamer who games for the art and experience? Which do you prefer? I'm more of a narrative man myself having recently played through Uncharted 2 again, but there is definitely a time and place for some mindlessness getting back into Just Cause 2 for fun. Comment away!

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