Gaming and the brain

13 February 2018

Interview with

Seb Wride, University of Cambridge

Videogames are an artform that also links closely with science. An obvious link is that with advanced technology comes advanced graphics, but one group from the University of Cambridge are actually using video games to measure how we learn. Georgia Mills was joined by Seb Wride from the Adaptive Brain Lab at Cambridge University

Seb - Previously, in the lab we’ve looked at the ways that people learn and in particular we’re looking at how people predict what’s coming up in the environment that they’re in. Particularly in uncertain environments, this is a particularly important function of the brain. We have discovered that there seem to be these two strategies that people use to predict the incoming situation and we are interested in what it is that makes a person pick one of those two strategies.

Georgia - Okay. Just thinking about this way of learning; for example, I’m in a new situation. Let’s say I’m playing American football for the first time and the ball is coming towards me and I need to adapt to the situation, what are the two strategies I might use?

Seb - Perhaps a better way of looking at it would be rules of American football itself. You might try to memorise all of the rules of American football and get them down so that you make no mistakes whatsoever. Alternatively, what you could do is just memorise the most important rules such as I need to run the ball to that end of the pitch. These would effectively be the two strategies: are you just taking in the most important information to save processing power perhaps, or are you taking in all the information to save on accuracy. We are interested, in particular, as to what would make you pick which of those strategies.

Georgia - I see. How does your video game do this?

Seb - In the video game we submerse people in a new environment in which they are trying to communicate with aliens who are speaking a language that you can’t understand because it doesn’t exist. You are presented with a string of symbols and you have to pick the next one in sequence, and you pick either according to whether you’ve memorised all of the symbols up to that point or what you think is most likely to come next all the time.

Georgia - So how well a player does basically tell which strategy they’re using?

Seb - Yeah.

Georgia -  I actually had a go at your game and it’s quite fun. You’re in this little rocket and you meet these aliens and then they fire a load of symbols at you. Then you’re rather confused and just have to hit one of them and hope they give you some fuel. So looking at people’s responses, this is giving you actual data to do your science?

Seb - Yeah, absolutely. And we’re combining this with some survey information that we get from everyone who takes part which will tell us a little bit about their backgrounds, their personality perhaps, and some other psychological tasks which will tell us more cognitive traits such as working memory, risk taking, and other things like that.

Georgia - Who is the study aimed at?

Seb - We are targeting as many people as we can possibly, but we’re also looking, in particular, at an adolescent group so people aged 13 to 17 because this is a vastly understudied group in the literature. We’re wondering if perhaps there are different strategies that adolescents would use to learn something than adults.

Georgi - Right. Is this new method of collecting data, I suppose, letting you reach this target demographic more easy?

Seb - Sure, That’s the intention. Getting it out there, particularly seeing as everyone these days has access to some kind of mobile device or the internet at least. They should be able to take part in this study and that will get us far broader than just the people who can make it into the lab for a day of testing.

Georgia - What’s that statistic? More people have access to a smartphone than to a toilet or something like that.

Seb - Exactly.

Georgia - This is designed to get data and it’s helping you do your science but are there any benefits to playing video games in general?

Seb - This is a very interesting area of research there’s a lot of people looking into right now. Video games, partly because of the way that they’re such an immersive environment that you get involved in and because you are interested in getting reward from these environments, you want to win the game, you want to do better, this leads the brain to develop. As a result we seem to find that people who play a lot of action video games, in particular, where there’s a lot of fast-paced interaction between the person and the machine. People tend to be able to track things visually. Where most of the population would be able to track four visual objects, gamers can track up to seven, maybe in excess of. It also seems to show that there’s this level of plasticity or flexibility in the brain which only really occurs in this immersive environment, which they’re using to treat stroke patients where, perhaps, part of the brain has been damaged and the only way to overcome that is to change the connections in that area.

Georgia - So would you say art has helped science and was it, when you were designing this video game were you like “oh, as a scientist I’m finding this a different kind of skill set now”?

Seb - Yeah. I think art is definitely helping science in this circumstance. It allows us to reach more people. It definitely makes it a little bit more fun to take part in psychological experiments. And it allows for this generation of entirely new environments which wouldn’t be possible without it.

Georgia - I’ve got to say some science studies can have you looking at the clock. But make it a video game and people are only too happy to play.

Seb - Exactly.

Georgia - Sam Aaron from Sonic Pi, would you agree then? Would you say science and art make good bedfellows?

Sam - Absolutely. I could almost argue that they don’t have that much difference at all - they’re both founded in creativity. Science is an approach which is fundamentally principled on having a hypothesis which is a guess, which is creative itself. I think they’re both tools we use to explore the society around us and ask questions that we don’t necessarily have answers to. They’re very different tools and they allow us to explore different questions but, ultimately, they’re about communicating whether or not we’ve found those answers or whether the questions are worth exploring further and I think to put so much force behind one and not the other is actually detrimental to humankind.

Georgia - Maybe we shouldn’t really be pigeonholing these two separate ideas of art and science and just squidge them together in one big brilliant thing.

Sam - I think if you look throughout history there are large periods of time where we didn’t have a separation at all.

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