Video mind games

When a player participates in simulated violence, his heart rate and blood pressure rise and brain cells that normally counsel empathy are shut down. Not only that, the images are burned into his long-term memory.

March 13, 2004
Globe and Mail
By William Illsey Atkinson

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 resonance imaging.

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 witnessed.

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 lineup.

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 brain.

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.

MRI origins

The central idea behind magnetic resonance imaging is only 33 years old. It was conceived by U.S. chemist Paul Lauterbur, who received the Nobel Prize in medicine last year for his discovery.

A generation ago, high-resolution imaging techniques required microtome samples, wafers of tissue cut from an organism and sliced into ultra-thin sections for examination. Dr. Lauterbur knew that magnetism and radio waves pass easily through organic tissues, and he wondered if he could harness these effects to probe delicate tissues without disturbing them.

While alone at a restaurant one evening, Dr. Lauterbur had an insight. If an organism -- a rat, say -- were bathed in a magnetic field that decreased in power from one side to another and at the same time were inundated in pulsed radio waves, theory predicted that every hydrogen atom in it would become a radio transceiver.

Each hydrogen atom would absorb a radio frequency at one wavelength and re-emit it at another. Intercepted by a sensor and massaged with the proper math, these "resonant wavelengths" could reveal the hydrogen atom's position in real time, creating, in aggregate, an accurate image of the rat's innards.

Every water molecule has two hydrogen atoms. If a rat's body held a hundred sextillion molecules of H{-2}O, it would have at least twice that number of built-in radio antennas to yield an image.

The rat need not even be dead, for the technique that Dr. Lauterbur imagined would peer inside living tissue in situ. It would lay bare a beating heart, a liver tumour or a flexing knee joint without the need for scalpels, needles or anesthetics. The new technique would make tissue as transparent as glass, yet be totally benign. Unlike high-energy X-rays, it would not cause radiation damage, no matter how often it was used.

That was Dr. Lauterbur's original insight in a restaurant in Pennsylvania.

Although the theory proved viable, it was difficult to convert into a workable technology. Dr. Lauterbur took a year to get a single MRI image of a test tube full of water, and another year to obtain a crude image of a clam.

But the technique steadily improved, borrowing controls from other imaging methods and taking analytical algorithms from abstruse divisions of pure mathematics. Dr. Lauterbur's 30-year-old hunch now underpins a series of refined commercial MRI scanners, which last year generated more than 60,000,000 medical images of human bodies worldwide.