Game on! The Science of Video Gaming

28 April 2015
Presented by Chris Smith, Kat Arney.

This week, the science at play in an industry that dwarfs both Hollywood and the music world: computer games. We hear how video games are altering the brains of players, why lovers of the shoot-em-up could be carving out a niche for themselves in the military, and whether adrenaline-fuelled sessions on a console can be addictive. Plus, why you might need a DNA test before going on holiday in future, evidence that bees are attracted by insecticides, and how colour can affect your body clock...

In this episode

00:57 - Drugs repair damage from MS

Two drugs that can help the brain to repair damage caused by multiple sclerosis have been uncovered by a new screening technology.

Drugs repair damage from MS
with Paul Tesar, Case Western University

MS MRIMultiple Sclerosis is a major cause of disability in the population. It's caused by the immune system attacking a substance in the brain called myelin, which wraps around nerve fibres and works a bit like the insulation around an electrical cable. Loss of myelin is what causes the disability in MS sufferers. But there are stem cells in the brain that can make new myelin, and now Case Western University scientist Paul Tesar has found two drugs that are already on the shelves of the average chemist shop, and can kick-start these stem cells into action to repair the damage, as he explained to Chris Smith...

Paul - MS has a large patient population and of course, pharmaceutical industries have developed a large number of drugs to target this disease. But all of these drugs are really focused on the immunological component of the disorder and actually, fail to regenerate the cells that are lost in the brain. And so, our goal was really to catalyse the body's own stem cells to replace those cells that are lost in multiple sclerosis. And so, what we really wanted to do was to talk to these stem cells already in the brain and instruct them to regenerate those specialised cells that are normally destroyed in multiple sclerosis patients.

Chris - So, how did you go about trying to persuade the brain to put itself right?

Paul - Of course, we know that there are stem cells throughout the brain that are capable of regenerating or replacing these cells that are lost. But in MS, they fail to do so efficiently. And so, we wanted to ask if we could really provide a system where we could test large numbers of drug for their ability to jump-start or to spark these stem cells forward to replace those damaged cells.

Chris - How many drugs did you screen?

Paul - So, in this initial study, we screened 727 drugs that have already been tested in humans or that are currently available for clinical use for other indications.

Chris - Did you get any hits? Were there any that were particularly good at stimulating these stem cells to regenerate myelin - the stuff that's lost in the brain?

Paul - What we were really surprised to see is that within the top set of the most potent drugs were two classes of compounds. A drug called Miconazole which is a topical antifungal drug. The second is Clobetasol which again, is also a topical drug used for skin conditions like eczema or psoriasis.

Chris - If you put these drugs into say, a mouse, with the mouse or rodent equivalent of MS, do they do in the brain - in situ - what they appear to do in the dish?

Paul - We were really excited to see that systemic administration of each of these two drugs independently were able to catalyse or spark these stem cells in the central nervous system of these mouse models of multiple sclerosis and to regenerate them, to allow them to create new cells that are able to reduce disease severity and also, reverse paralysis in these animal models.

Chris - So, there was a genuine clinical benefit in the animals. It wasn't just a subtle effect where you got a few more stem cells. You could actually show that animals that were treated with these agents performed much better afterwards.

Paul - Yes, absolutely. So, we saw a statistically significant reduction in disease severity which equates to the ability of these animals to regain use of their hind limbs which were initially paralysed by the disease.

Chris - And would this also work in a human do you think?

Paul - Well, that's really the billion-pound question here, how could we leverage the data that we've gotten from the study to move this forward into clinical testing. The idea that we could be testing drugs that have already been approved for other indications potentially allows us to move this into the clinic quicker. But the current hits from the screen are proved for topical use. And so, we're really working very intensely now in how we might modify the dosing of the delivery or even modifying the compound itself that would really allow us to safely and effectively deliver these drugs systemically. I think if that went well, we might be able to begin testing some of these in the next few years. I want to strongly caution that the use of these current drugs which are only approved for topical use are not amenable to systemic administration at this time.

Kat - It's an important point but it is still very exciting news although they don't actually know how the drugs are working yet and that's what they're looking at now. That's Paul Tesar talking to Chris.

05:25 - Why mosquitoes prefer some people

Research has shown that your genes are responsible for how attractive you are to mosquitoes

Why mosquitoes prefer some people
with Dr James Logan, London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine

Ever wondered why some people just seem to be mosquito-magnets while A mosquito biting a fingerothers escape unbitten? New research out this week suggests how attractive you are to mosquitoes is all down to your genes. Kat Arney went to see James Logan, from the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine, to find out why...

James - To test how attractive you are, we use an olfactometer. So, a Y-shaped tube essentially that allows us to place volunteers' hands inside the tube and we test the response of the mosquitoes to odours from volunteers' hands. So, if mosquitoes are attracted to the hands, they'll fly towards them and if they're not attracted, they'll fly away. So, in our study, we study twins essentially and we looked at the behaviour of mosquitoes to the odours of identical and non-identical twins. So the idea is that if there is a genetic, some sort of genetic control going on, I would be able to see that in the behaviour of the mosquitoes. So, the hypothesis was that identical twins would be similar in their level of attractiveness and non-identical twins would be different.

Kat - What did you find when you wafted these mosquitoes towards different people's hands?

James - In our test, where we looked at about 40 sets of twins, what we found in our experiment was that mosquitoes were equally attracted to odours from identical twins. When we subjected them to odours from non-identical twins, that correlation wasn't there. so, what that told us was that identical twins were similar in their level of attractiveness to mosquitoes which suggests that there is some sort of genetic control of how attractive you are to mosquitoes.

Kat - We hear a lot in the media about genes controlling things like our height, our IQ, our risk of diseases. How does this sort of level of attractiveness to mozzies compare?

James - When we do this experiment, we have to do a calculation for heritability. The values that we got were quite high. Astonishingly high actually, quite surprising, really at the sort of level of the same sort of values you would get for an IQ and height. So, it really was quite surprising. It seems to be very strong genetic component.

Kat - We also know things like high IQ. They're not necessarily just one gene. Is it that there's a gene for attractiveness to mosquitoes and some people have one version or another, or is it going to be more complicated than that?

James - At this stage, we don't know. So, we know that there's some sort of something going on genetically. The next stage of the study is then to identify the genes involved. There could be more than one gene that possibly, there probably is more than one gene involved. So, there's a lot of unanswered questions here but it's really exciting now that we can go on to the next stage and look at the genes.

Kat - So, once you do find this gene or genes that might be involved, what's the plan? Is it just to be able to test someone go bad like maybe don't go on holidays somewhere where there's mosquitoes?

James - Yeah. I mean, that is something that we could think about. You can have your genomes screened for all sorts of things nowadays and that could be one of the things that we look at, is your susceptibility to being bitten by mosquitoes. And that has more serious implications for populations and disease in endemic countries where malaria or dengue is a problem for example. So, we could look at the risk of certain populations and take into account how likely they are to be bitten when we do predictive modelling. But more than that, we could possibly develop a new technology. So, you might imagine taking a pill when you go on holiday which causes the body to naturally upregulate the production of these natural repellents which is what makes us unattractive. And that would minimise the need for putting topical repellents on the skin.

Kat - There's a lot of sort of folklore and old wives' tales about maybe you should eat garlic or drink different things to repel mosquitoes. Is there any truth in that, now we're getting towards the summer holiday season?

James - It would be good if there was. A lot of people have various anecdotes: Guinness is one of them, or gin, garlic, vitamin B. The truth is, there is no evidence that it can make you less attracted to mosquitoes. In fact, studies have been done which have shown that vitamin B for example has no effect on how attractive you are to mosquitoes. One study in 2010 showed that if you drank beer, it made you more attractive. I'm not sure whether that will stop people drinking beer when they go on holiday, but, yeah, the difference wasn't very big, so I wouldn't be too worried about it!

09:55 - Bees prefer insecticide-laced flowers

Research has shown bees are more likely to revisit flowers containing insecticides, despite not being able to taste it.

Bees prefer insecticide-laced flowers
with Professor Geraldine Wright, Newcastle University

Bumblebee - Bombus terrestrisBees are essential for food production and, through their pollination efforts, they contribute billions to the world economy. But their numbers have been declining alarmingly in recent years and one reason may be that they are falling victim to a class of insecticides called neonicotinoids. These chemicals get into all parts of a plant - including the nectar that bees collect. But bees should, we were told, avoid plants containing neonicotinoids because the taste would put them off. Now Geraldine Wright, from Newcastle University, has shown that, not only can bees not taste neonicotinoids, they actually alter the insects' brains to make them prefer food laced with the chemicals, so they end up poisoning themselves, as she explained to Chris Smith...

Geraldine - This manuscript started out as an experiment to test whether bees could taste neonicotinoids in sucrose solution. We wanted to know whether bees might be able to taste these pesticides and avoid them when they were flying around in the field and possibly foraging on the flowers of seed-treated plants. And basically, the design is to put an individual bumble bee into a plastic box and to put a food tube, one on each side, so that they have one that contains sucrose and another one on the other side that contains sucrose plus a toxin. What we did is we changed to the amount of toxin that we put into the sucrose toxin tube to see at what point the bees would be able to detect the food and avoid the toxin.

Chris - Was your hypothesis then, that because people have said, we don't need to worry so much about some of these insecticides that we put on things because the insects like bees that we want to have around us, they will naturally develop an aversion to the taste of these things and avoid them.

Geraldine - Yes. That's the rationale that a lot of people use, is that these are pesticides. They should taste bad and they should be avoided by insects. So, we wanted to test whether bees could actually detect these compounds in floral nectar and possibly avoid them.

Chris - Can they?

Geraldine - Well, our experiment showed that they cannot in fact taste these pesticides. What's more, using this experimental design, we found that instead, bees prefer to drink solutions that contain 2 of the 3 most common neonicotinoid pesticides.

Chris - Why are they drinking more of the sugar solution if they don't know the stuff is in there and how do you know they don't know the stuff that's in there?

Geraldine - We used a specialised technique that allowed us to record from the bees' taste buds and we applied the neonicotinoids to the bees' taste buds and we couldn't find any evidence that bees could actually taste these compounds using their mouthparts. What I think is happening is that these compounds are acting on the neurons in the bee's brain to make sucrose more rewarding to the bee, just like nicotine affects human beings.

Chris - What would be the consequence for the bee? Would there be something other than just a sort of memory reprograming effect to favour those flowers? Would there be other health deleterious effects?

Geraldine - Yes. So, the unfortunate thing is that the same concentrations that we used which happen to be the concentrations that have been reported from nectar also have been shown to do other things to bees including affecting their motor function, affecting their ability to form olfactory memories, affecting their ability to navigate and find their way home. So, there are detrimental effects of the concentrations that we tested as well.

Chris - There's obviously a lot of attention being paid to the phenomenon of colony collapse disorder which people believe is probably multifactorial. There are lots of elements probably playing a part. Would you say your findings are consistent with these pesticides being involved?

Geraldine - There have been several studies that show that exposure to low doses of these pesticides, specifically imidacloprid, interacts with the bee's immune function and that causes a greater - especially in honeybees - a greater susceptibility to parasites like varroa mites. So, I think that there's good evidence that when you're seeing a situation like colony collapse disorder that it's likely that it could be caused by exposure to the toxin simultaneously with other stressors that also then influence the ability of bees to deal with those forms of stress.

Chris - Geraldine Wright from the University of Newcastle.

14:37 - How colour corrects your body clock

Your body clock uses colour to determine the time of day, which may even explain how colour vision evolved in the first place...

How colour corrects your body clock
with Dr Tim Brown, University of Manchester

Your body clock is the mechanism behind your daily rhythms, helping to regulateSunset sleep and wakefulness. It is extremely important: an out-of-sync body clock can cause sleepiness, throw  your appetite even raise your risk of cancer and heart disease. But how does this internal clock set itself? Georgia Mills spoke to researcher Tim Brown.

Tim - Generally, what people have thought up until now was that this works via signals from the eyes that reach the body clock and essentially provide information about the amount of light. So, if there's a lot of light, the clock will know it's daytime. If there's not very much light, it's night time. Of course, the problem with just measuring brightness is that on a cloudy day there'll be less light and so your ability to judge when it's transitioned between day and night will be different than on a clear day. And so, what we found was that actually the clock gets around this by also measuring the colour of light. That changes in a very predictable way around dawn and dusk and importantly, that really isn't affected by cloud cover. So, the colour of light is consistently bluer the lower the sun is below the horizon.

Georgia - How did you go about testing this?

Tim - What we did was create what we describe as an artificial sky. That allowed us to house mice in this environment where we're able to either completely recreate natural dawn and dusk, or provide something that was almost identical except there was no change in colour. So, there was a big change in brightness between day and night, but the colour was fixed to resemble night time. By doing this, we're able to see that under our completely natural recreation of the environment, the body clock of mice was really reliably synchronised to the middle of the night. If we remove that change in colour and just showed them the change in brightness then they were less able to synchronise their activity to night time. In fact, their body clock shifted earlier into the day. So effectively, they perceive night as arriving earlier when we presented colours that resembled night.

Georgia - So, by changing the colour of this artificial sky, you could trick mice essentially into thinking it was a later or an earlier time of day.

Tim - That's right.

Georgia - I know that mice have pretty poor colour vision when you compare them to humans. Can this translate to how people measure the day?

Tim - The main difference between the colour vision in mice and humans is that, of course, humans have this ability to discriminate red and green colours whereas mice, and almost all other mammals, possess this ability to distinguish blue, yellow colours which, of course, humans also have. And this is really the ancestral form of colour vision. In fact, one of the exciting things about our research is that it suggests maybe the original reason why colour vision evolved might have been to tell our body clock what time of day it is. So, in so far as it's present in both mice and humans then we certainly think our findings could translate to humans. But of course definitive proof of that will require a few experiments actually in human subjects.

Georgia - Say, we established that this exact mechanism is what happens in a human brain and that's how our body decides what time of day is, are there any practical applications we can learn from this?

Tim - Well, yeah. I think there's a really exciting potential here. So, what our research has done really is lay the framework which we can use to think about designing new kinds of lighting environments or devices that use changes in colour to adjust how they affect our body clocks. So in general terms, you can think of that working in two ways really. You can design lighting environments for things like workplaces or schools that are designed to maximise the synchronisation of our body clocks to our social or work schedules. And that obviously has the associated benefits that it brings our peek cognitive abilities in line with our work environment. The other way that it could be useful is that of course, there will always be sometimes when say, we need to stay up late and we need light to see what we're doing. But we don't want to reset our body clocks. Under those circumstances, you can think about adjusting the colour of the lighting to minimise the impact it would have on your internal rhythms.

18:58 - Why wearable technology is big business

From the Apple Watch to contact lenses that can check up on you, find out about what's next for wearable technologies...

Why wearable technology is big business
with Peter Cowley, Entrepreneur and Angel Investor, Cambridge

Wearable technologies are, according to Wikipedia, "clothing andWearable technology accessories incorporating computer and advanced electronic technologies for practical functions and features". People are claiming that this is set to become the next big thing. Here to give us his critical opinion is business entrepreneur Peter Cowley, who is also the UK's business Angel Investor of the year...

Peter - There have been wearable technologies around for many years and some of our listeners will have actually got fitness devices on them, which is approximately measuring the calorific usage of the body. Possibly, people have heard of Google glass. It was around and now has been withdrawn from the market temporarily. The Oculus Rift, which is a gaming device, a gaming headset; there's various forms of clothing actually coming in with technology in them. I'm actually an investor in a manufacture of boxing gloves which have got technology in them as well.

Chris - Boxing gloves, so you can tell how hard you socked the opposition?

Peter - Not just how hard, but also, the direction that you're actually socking the chin of the other person. So, you can train from that. You can work out, give points to the direction and location. So, it may well get used by the media to provide better feedback to how well the boxers are hitting each other.

Chris - You went down to see the launch of Apple's watch last Friday. Were you impressed?

Peter - I'm very impressed with the product. My concern at the moment is the battery life's its got is short. So, in the old days of course, the battery would last forever. We're used to charging our phones every day, so we're obviously going to have to get to the point where we have to charge our watch every day as well. But the user interface is absolutely gorgeous.

Chris - Would you find yourself actually using one?

Peter - I do use one. I've got it on me at the moment. I've got one that I bought a couple of years ago which is on the very early smart watches. There are a number of these cases which really worked for me:, things like it vibrating 10 minutes before an appointment; incoming phone call appear on my wrist and then can make a decision whether to sneak out to the meeting or answer the call.

Chris - So, that's a yes from you for that sort of technology. What other sorts of things are in this landscape? What's on the horizon for wearable technologies?

Peter - Huge amounts. We're just really waiting for a number of things. Battery life as I said earlier on will be an issue and battery is a technology that's moving on rather slowly. But this device I saw in Vienna recently, which is called a MYO, which is an armband that sits on the lower arm which measures not just the accelerometer and position of the arm, but it also monitors the electrical currents passing through the muscles so it knows where the hand is. So, in fact, you've got something that will detect not just arm position but finger positions as well. The Google Glass itself, there's a little trackpad available that sits over the thumb at the moment so you can actually use your mouse just with the forefinger and the thumb.

Chris - So, you just pinch finger and thumb together and that's effectively...

Peter - Yeah, run it from the top of your thumb. Exactly, yeah. There's even here in Cambridge, which has got some jewellery, which emits scents depending on mood and stress levels in order hopefully to get feedback to reduce amount of stress.

Chris - What does it emit or release to calm people down in a tense radio studio environment?

Peter - I couldn't say. I'm not a chemist. You should be able to tell me that Chris.

Chris - What about the story about Google and contact lenses? What's that all about?

Peter - Yeah, that's very interesting. There was some technology that Google has been working for some time and this is a contact lens that will have a sensor that will measure a level of a chemical, which will tell - in time, with clinical evidence - whether somebody has got potentially diabetes. But presumably also, the power has been generated from something in the eye, on the eye, the fluids on the eye.

Chris - So, your take on this is that this is definitely here to stay, this sort of technology and it's only going to get bigger.

Peter - Yeah. I mean, the figures that are floating around are about 40 million devices were sold last year and it's going to be about 300 million in 3 years' time. They won't all be watches. They'll be all kinds of other devices.

23:15 - The history of video games

When did video games first become popular? Take a trip down memory lane to the arcades of the 80s...

The history of video games
with Jeremy Thackray, Centre for Computing History

The video games industry is, financially, the biggest entertainment industry inPong the world. But where did it all start? Georgia Mills spoke to Jeremy Thackray, assistant curator at the Centre for Computing History in Cambridge, for a nostalgic look at some of the earliest games...

Jeremy - Commercially, it really begins in the 1970s with Pong. That's the first one that everyone remembers. It's the one that people think of as the very first video game, those noises and that screen are very familiar to lots of people.

Georgia - I see you've got a copy of Pong over there.

Jeremy - We do, yes, always very popular.

Georgia - At this point, we got slightly distracted by Pong which is one of the world's oldest games. To modern gamers, it might seem unbelievably basic - two lines and a dot. Don't let the dot go behind your line. Kind of like pixelated tennis, simple enough - although that didn't stop Jeremy from annihilating me. But how did we get from this simple game to the Shoot 'Em Ups, RPGs and action adventures of today?

Jeremy - The thing that started video games off in a big way was the arcade. It was really interesting because it was the social space for people to go and gather and discover this new kind of media form. The home gaming market always followed the arcades. The games that were really successful on home machines were the ones that were massive in the arcades like Space Invaders. Once that made it into homes in about 1980, I think that's when home gaming really took off because people wanted that same arcade experience in their house.

Georgia - How has the technology changed over time?

Jeremy - The technology has changed massively. It's extraordinary, the rate of pace. We sometimes talk about the early examples of processors that we have here. one of the first processors would've had a number of transistors and this would've been about in the kind of low hundreds. In an Xbox One, you get billions of transistors. The technology is just advancing an incredible rate right now. People often talk about the quest for photo realism in games and we're just about there now to be honest. I think it's an amazing that that has happened in about 30 or 40 years and it makes you wonder where we're going to be in the next 30 or 40 years' time. it's just an enormous field with so much potential.

Georgia - And you say it's an enormous field. How big is the gaming industry?

Jeremy - Gaming industry right now, it's bigger than film. It's overtaken music. It's the biggest entertainment industry in the world, certainly in financial terms. In terms of kind of cultural capital, it's still catching up a little bit. You'll find often in culture supplements in newspapers, they're still much more willing to talk about the familiar things like music and cinema and so on. But that's changing. That's not the only way things are changing today. The big new thing in games right now is virtual reality which tried - it almost got there in the 80s, people thought it was the next big thing but the technology just wasn't ready. It is now. There are several major companies who are starting work on VR headsets. There's also a whole new market for games that's come in the form of mobile phones and smartphones which is opening up audiences massively. People who don't necessarily think of themselves as gamers are spending a lot of time on the bus, on the train, on their way to work playing games. So, the audience has expanded massively. The technology is going the same way. It's becoming almost ubiquitous in our daily lives really.

27:33 - Making video games

How do you go about making a video game? And how has the industry evolved since the 1980s?

Making video games
with David Braben, Frontier

How do you actually make a video game? And how has game development Elite: Dangerouschanged over the last few decades? David Braben is the founder of Frontier, who recently released Elite: Dangerous. This is a space venture game that's modeled one to one on our own galaxy. He explained to Chris Smith how he got started with his latest game.

David - Well, it depends what the subject matter of the game is. It's like saying, "How do you start making your film?" I think with that, you start off with a subject matter. So, with a game like Elite: Dangerous, we started off wanting to recreate our galaxy. We would look to all the star maps in real life and work out what we wanted to do. So, you start off designing what you would expect to happen and what the player would expect to see and work out all the different subsystems that are needed to be able to make that. Then, you breakdown all of those tasks into sort of sub-tasks. These days, lots of different people then work on it together, to bring it altogether.

Chris - How do you spot the gap in the market that you think, "Aha! This is where we need to target." How do you spot those sorts of trends?

David - So, many of us at Frontier are gamers, me included, and we know where there are sort of games that we know we'd like, but don't exist anymore. I mean, there have been very few space games for a long time for at least a decade, and yet, they have been very successful in the past. So, there was an obvious gap. The games market is a funny beast. It's much like the films in some ways, in a sense that a lot of the very big publishers tend not to go for the gaps in the market. They tend to go for the big sellers in the market. So, we see lots and lots of games that are all frankly quite similar to each other, and then huge gaps where there's nothing. If you talk to the publishers, they say, "Well, we're not sure games in that gap are going to sell."

Chris - How much do you have to spend in order to get a game to market nowadays? The days of being able to sit in your living room and code up a little thing that someone would take away on a cassette tape and load into their home computer? I mean, they're clearly gone. What's the price tag for that investment to get a game onto a shelf?

David - Well, the cassette tape is gone, but the principle hasn't gone.

There are still games that one, two or three people have created in often literally, their back bedroom, although they are few and far between. I mean, if you look at the massive blockbuster like Minecraft for example, it was created by a small number of people in Mojang. They created that as a very simple game and very quickly, it grew into a fantastic, monster almost.

So, it does happen and there is a whole area called indie gaming where independent people have gone and created games. A lot of them don't do very well, but a few of them do really well. What's great is there's a lot of - it's where our new blood is coming from if you like - it's not a million miles from the sort of indie music scene of a decade or two decades ago, when we were a lot younger when experimental music - not all of it brilliant - but some of it was great and they turned into big bands. And so, I think what's happened is the whole games business has matured a lot. So, we're seeing lots of different kinds of things appealing to lots of different audiences, whether some are aimed at kids, some are aimed at adults, some are aimed at people who want experiences where you sit down for several hours, others where you have an experience where you play for 5 or 10 minutes on the bus.

Chris - The internet must've made a massive difference now. Because I remember as a kid, I would buy a computer game. It was a one-to-one experience, you and your computer. But now, we expect almost to be able to compete against the world when we play these games.

David - Yes, I think it's made a lot of differences. I mean, one example, if you look at the kinds of games that do well and the way people find them; sort of 10 years ago, most games would be bought in a shop on a disk because you couldn't really download it.

What that meant is the gatekeepers of what games get made were the people who owned the route market. So, you would go into a big shop and often, it was only the big distributors who could get their games into those shops. So, they determine what games were made and that tended to mean lots of games that were very similar like I mentioned earlier get made.

But what's great now is the internet has facilitated this sort of independent development that I mentioned because lots of companies including Frontier now can go directly to our players, to our fans. And that means we can make games that we know we want to make, What it's done is it smoothed the route to making the game directly. What it's meant is lots of new games that probably wouldn't otherwise have got made including games like Minecraft and including games like Elite: Dangerous are now being made. What's happened? We suddenly now got a huge range of exciting things being made.

32:25 - Why do we like video games?

What is it about video games that so many people love? And are they inherently addictive?

Why do we like video games?
with Dr Mark Coulson, Middlesex University London

Some estimates state that over a billion of us are "gamers", with many peopleGames playing, on average, for eight hours a week on their consoles. But why are games so popular and should we be worrying about what our games are doing to our brains? Kat Arney spoke to psychologist Mark Coulson, from the University of Middlesex, London...

Mark - I think play is ubiquitous. Everybody likes to play. In fact, it's not just our species that enjoys playing. Lots of other species seem to engage in play. Scientists have recently decided that geckos like to play. Play serves a function that enables us to learn new skills, explore new ways of handling old challenges and perhaps learn new techniques for new challenges as well.

Kat - In terms of video games, they've become wildly, wildly popular. What is it about video games in particular that people seem to really like?

Mark - I think at least part of the attraction of video games is the notion of play. They offer us fantastic environments in which we can play. But we also know that people play games for lots of different reasons. So, some people like to explore other realities. Other people like games for their social content. Other people like them because they enjoy encountering every single thing you can encounter in the game, gaining every power you can gain in the game. Other people like them because of a sense of mastery or power over other individuals. I think there are also design elements to games. Some of these designers have hit upon by accident, others, they've deliberately put into games. So for instance, if we go right the way back to Pavlov's dogs, what we know about conditioning is that if you want to condition an individual to engage in behaviour they're not subsequently going to stop performing, then the best way to do it is to intermittently reinforce them. So, you don't reinforce them every time they engage in the behaviour. You just reinforce them occasionally. Now, games actually tend to do this. If you're playing a game where you have to go often and kill monsters or something to collect treasure, and particular items of treasure that you have to collect, then the monsters won't drop that treasure every single time you kill them. So, you're being intermittently reinforced. So, there are certain sort of behavioural design principles that go into games.

Kat - And can games actually be addictive? You do hear stories about people who just play games endlessly and start to ignore the other functions of their life.

Mark - I think that's a really interesting question. First of all, I think we've got to distinguish between addiction and dependence. So, when we talk about addiction we really mean a psychological need. This is not a physical or biological need. However, if anything is enjoyable, anything at all, whether it's video games, chocolate, TV, or whatever, you can become addicted to it. So, there is always going to be a danger there. There are, I think, some quite serious problems with assessing gaming addiction. A lot of the work that's been done in this area is focused on adapting measures of gambling addiction and trying to apply them to gaming. One of the difficulties with this area is if you're asking people about gambling addiction, you may ask them questions like, "How much of the time when you're not gambling do you spend thinking about gambling?" Obviously, if you endorse a question like that, that's potentially problematic. Gaming is a little bit different though. A lot of gamers will spend time out of the game, thinking about the game itself. But this is often very productive work. This is cognitive work. This is people thinking about how they can overcome challenges. So, from a psychological perspective it might actually be quite healthy. If you simply use the kind of measures that are used to assess gambling addiction and apply them to gaming addiction, you tend to overestimate the extent of the problem.

Kat - In terms of some of the other potential risks of gaming, the media sometimes talks about perhaps violent video games, the Shoot 'Em Ups, do they encourage violent behaviour? What's the current thinking on that?

Mark - The current thinking is a little bit controversial. I think it's important to note that we don't have definitive answers. Indeed, I don't think there will necessarily be definitive answers. We are not entirely sure always what we mean by violence in a game. It's very difficult to define what we mean by violent behaviour. When we look at the literature then what becomes fairly apparent is that the better controlled the study is, the better the science that goes into the research, the smaller the effects tend to be. I think it's also notable that whenever legislation has looked at this - so for instance in California a few years ago there was a bill introduced to ban sale of violent video games to minors - that legislation has failed. Basically because when legislators looked at the evidence, they do not conclude that violent video games cause violent behaviour.

Kat - In terms of the psychological, the social impacts of games and the potential for them to change how people see themselves, change maybe how people think or even learn, where do you think games might be heading in the future?

Mark - I think games are going to explore not just new worlds but new thoughts and feelings. I think they're going to expand our opportunity to experiment with taking on roles and engaging in types of behaviour and seeing the consequences of types of behaviour that we simply cannot engage in real life. There are lots of things that we can't do - sometimes because we don't want to, sometimes because we're not able to, and sometimes because the law tells us that we can't. Games offer us an opportunity to expand our moral, our emotional, and our behavioural experiences.

Kat - As well as potentially having negative outcomes, this sounds like it could be quite positive. Whether you could get someone to play a game and maybe experience some characteristics that are perhaps very beneficial, or help them to see life from someone else's shoes.

Mark - There is definitely some evidence that people can adopt more pro-social behaviours as a result of playing games. Lots of games particularly the more mature games that have an adult rating will deal with issues of sexism and racism, and offer people the opportunity to explore these kinds of issues in effectively threat-free environments. There are no terrible immediate personal consequences of exploring these different emotions within games.

38:56 - Do video games change your brain?

Can video games boost your brain power, and do they have a place in the classroom?

Do video games change your brain?
with Dr Duncan Astle, MRC Cognition and Brain Sciences Unit

Brain training is a popular subset of games many people use daily, but is there any Brainevidence that gaming can actually change our brains? And with younger people in particular so enamoured of video games, can we use this as a teaching tool to boost classroom learning? Duncan Astle researches this at the MRC's Cognition and Brain Sciences Unit in Cambridge, and he went over his findings with Chris Smith...

Duncan - Well, the evidence is mixed. So, the theory goes that we know there are lots of cognitive skills that are very important for learning in the classroom. For example, working memory - the ability to hold in mind and use small amounts of information - so, if I gave you a math sum to perform that would really tax your working memory. And the theory goes, that if I could generate some games that were fun, that children could play, that really tax their working memory skills, and by putting them through a kind of course of training, that ought to have knock-on benefits for learning. That's the theory at least.

Chris - That's the theory. So, what does the evidence actually say?

Duncan - It depends who you ask.

Chris - I'm asking you.

Duncan - I think the evidence is that you can get what we refer to as 'near transfer'. So, if you train children on working memory games for example, then you find that you can get benefits on similar but untrained working memory exercises. So, in our paper, what we were interested in is, what is the impact on children's brains that are being put through these kinds of intensive training exercises?

Chris - What did you get them to do and how did you measure them?

Duncan - So, we recruited around 30 or so children. We assessed their cognitive skills using some standard assessments that are used by teachers and educationists. We gave them a brain scan using a technique called magnetoencephalography, or MEG for short. The children were then sent off and while they were away they did 20 sessions of online games. The games were quite short. They were fun, but they all required the children to tax their working memory skills. Half the children did this kind of intensive working memory training regime and half the children did a placebo intervention. So, they played the same games for the same duration but the games were pegged at a low level. So, they're really quite straightforward. They didn't really make many demands on working memory. And then the children came back to the lab 4 to 6 weeks later. We retested them with everything and we found that the children who had had the intensive version, indeed, their working memory skills had significantly improved. The brain scans revealed that we could detect significant changes in their brains, particularly in the networks involved in attention - in memory. And they were significantly enhanced in the children that had had the intensive version relative to the controls.

Chris - To what extent do you think this is going to be a long term change? Or do you think that as soon as they stop playing the game or whatever they were doing then they're going to revert to where they started?

Duncan - Well, we know that these kinds of games are still measurable up to a year later. So, a year later, the children will have retained around 85 per cent of the gain that they made so it's quite substantial.

Chris - Do you think age is a factor as well? Do you think that people playing David's games for example need to be doing that from a young age to reap a benefit?

Duncan - The question of benefit is an interesting one. So, all we've shown is that if you give children games that tax these cognitive skills, they get better at similar but untrained skills. The theory is that the younger you are, the more plastic the brain ought to be and therefore, the gains ought to be bigger. But there's not been all that much work to support that. But the question of gains is a really interesting one because there are some people who argue that this kind of intensive training is the cure for all sorts of ills - problems with reading, problems with math, diagnosis of ADHD, what you need is working memory training. However, some of the evidence that's used to make those claims tends to be based on studies that aren't always so well designed. So, no control group or they've got a control group but they don't actually do anything, or the children aren't randomly allocated to groups. We know that these things can make a really big difference. When you do do a study with the kind of gold standard design, actually the benefits, the wider benefits of things like maths and reading, of this kind of working memory training is negligible.

Chris - Do you think that the critical thing is that the game, intrinsic to a game is fun? And therefore, if it's stimulating, it gets much better engagement because the children are having fun and it's because they've got that strong motivation and buy in and they engage with it very powerfully, that's why they get the cognitive benefit.

Duncan - I think that could well be the case. If you have the time to leaf through our paper then you'll see in the data there's a large degree of variability in how much of an improvement the children show. And I suspect that a big part of that is the extent to which they're motivated. The games are designed to fun and playable, the kind of thing that you enjoy doing. If you speak to the parents...

Chris - Well, unlike a maths lesson.

Duncan - Exactly. Math can be fun too, but if you speak to the parents and they say, "Actually, sometimes it was quite a chore to get the children to do these games." So, I think that intrinsic motivation is an important aspect of the kinds of benefits that they may get.

44:16 - Gamers set for military service?

Can technology from video games be used outside the entertainment industry?

Gamers set for military service?
with Professor Bob Stone, University of Birmingham

Afghan VillageTechnology from video games is at the bleeding edge, so why not use it in other areas of society?  Bob Stone is from the Human Interface Technologies team at the University of Birmingham and his group are at the forefront of using video games in all kind of ways - from helping to train the military, to digital restoration as he explained to Kat Arney...

Bob - We're actually quite a small team and what I try to do, having joined the university in 2003, is to look at how we can use gaming technology, because it's much more affordable and much more accessible than the bad old virtual reality days of the 1990s, to help design simulations, if you like, for real world applications, particularly in training and also in design.

Kat - Now, are we talking about just the kind of the Shoot 'Em Up thing? if you're thinking about training the military, is that the only kind of thing that's useful for training soldiers?

Bob - No, but obviously, the training gunnery using low cost games technologies is a bit of a no-brainer. But the work that we've been doing over the last 10 years or so has been looking into using it to train bomb disposal experts. The guys who for example are controlling the latest CUTLASS bomb disposal robot that's been seen on the TV recently. Also things like introducing new submariner recruits to become spatially aware of the safety elements of items on board submarines.

Kat - Are these video games more effective than old fashioned training? Could they be a complete replacement? Could you imagine that someone who's just been trained in a virtual submarine, you go, "Right, off you go. Get in the boat out there"?

Bob - No, not yet. I don't think that's the case. I think they're very additive onto sort of existing training regimes. We found with the SUBSAFE programme, for example, that we can introduce the virtual submarine into specific items in the classroom, in the actual training regime as opposed to replacing it altogether. But it did significantly affect their performance when they went on-board the submarine for the first time.

Kat - And are we're just talking about virtual reality techniques here or are there other types of software in technology that are applicable for this type of training?

Bob - Well, there are other types. I mean, virtual reality is the area that I've been involved in for the last 28 years. So to me, it really is giving us access to something we couldn't do in the 1990s. But the thing with games is, you can also link it into other forms of media. You can link it into videos, text, you can link it into sound, you can link it into smell. I think the games technology is giving us the ability to exploit multisensory environments more so than ever before.

Kat - Now, I've seen things like footage of US and UK military soldiers basically using what looks like an Xbox controller to fly drones in real war situations. Are games effectively training the trigger fingers of the next generation of soldiers?

Bob - Well, it's not actually training the trigger fingers. I think what you're finding particularly in the US and the UK military are doing is they're recognising that many of the youngsters who want to take up a career in the armed forces are games competent. They're games ready for want of a better description. So, they're now looking at the ergonomics, the human factors of this and introducing Xbox PS4 shaped controllers into their systems so when they come on-board, they're more familiar.

Kat - So, the game software is actually and the game hardware is driving what the military want to make their stuff like.

Bob - Well indeed, yes and also making sure that when the youngsters come into the military, they're presented with training based packages that are similar to what they have at home. The legacy training - they just simply cannot engage the youngsters with the old styles of training anymore.

Kat - And so, very briefly, we've talked about the military applications for this, but what other things have you been looking at?

Bob - Well, the other big success stories for us are in what we call, healthcare and heritage. Just very briefly, we've got two games based simulations of two areas of outstanding national beauty in the west country in the Queen Elizabeth Hospital at Birmingham, undergoing trials to look at helping patients recovery times from traumatic operations and that's a very exciting area.

Kat - Wow! So, you can go for a virtual walk while you're still in a hospital.

Bob - Yes, so if you wake up and rather than just seeing glass, bricks and metal, you actually have a window onto an alternative world that is synchronised with the real time of day. So rather than seeing urban sprawl, you can see the coast at Wembury, watch the waves come in, hear the sounds, or watch the sun go down.

Virtual Wembery in Intensive Care Unit

48:58 - Q&A: What's your favourite game?

The panelists talk about their favourite games, whether games can change your brain, and the dawn of eSports.

Q&A: What's your favourite game?
with David Braben, Frontier & Duncan Astle, MRC Cognition and Brain Sciences Unit

Duncan Astle, from the Cognition and Brains Sciences Unit in Cambridge, and David Braben, from Frontier Games, rejoin Chris Smith to discuss where video games are headed; how theVideo games Internet has changed things, and reminisce about their favourite games. First up; Duncan answers Victoria's question on whether a game can change your brain.

Duncan - I guess there's a good reason to suspect that there will be a significant change as a resul,t because we know that the brain changes as we experience the world around us. It's an incredibly adaptive system and it's designed to be that way. That's the way it's meant to work. The real challenge in this area was that it's exceptionally difficult to design good experiments. The classic way of studying it is to basically do a kind of correlational study, where you look at whether there is significant brain effects that are associated with how many hours you spent playing games and to conclude that those differences in the brain are likely caused by playing the game.

Chris - You're saying, is it cause or effect. "I'm good at those games because I get more reward from those games because I have a brain that makes me play them well?

Duncan - Yeah. It's really difficult to design really good studies that pull those things apart.

Chris - Now, this is a terrific one, David. Max tweeted, "When do you think eSports will be respected in the west and what will be the catalyst for that?" I suppose you should probably tell us first of all what eSports is.

David - Okay. For those who don't know what eSports is, it's playing games in a competitive way, often for prize money, in the same way, people do championships for darts or whatever, you do it with a computer game and the best player gets to win. Now, it's very, very big particularly in the East at the moment and it's taking also in the US, there are competitions.

Chris - And big prize money, isn't it?

David - Absolutely, big prize money and very compelling. Often online, the competitions are streamed so people watch them. They get big audiences. So, I think it's gradually increasing. But to answer the wider question, I think when games start to get respect, eSport gaming will get more respect. I think that's part of the issue. Gaming is generally played by - the average age of gamers has been going up steadily, but there is still an influential part of the population who don't get touched by gaming, whose image is the bleepy games from the 1980s. And they assume that's what gaming is like, but it's not the case.

Chris - A question from Philip for both of you. We'll start with Duncan. What's your favourite game and why? Did you have an Atari?

Duncan - We didn't have an Atari. The coolest thing in the world at that time, was that our dad had helped us to link two PCs together, which meant that we could both play against each other at the same time. We used to play a game called Doom, which I don't know if it's still around, but it's a pretty violent shoot 'em up. We were oblivious kind of playing around, kind of shooting which we thought was great fun. I guess it stopped us tearing the living room apart.

Chris - David?

David - A very difficult one.

Chris - You're a bit conflicted because, obviously, you're almost honour-bound to name one of your own pieces of software!

David - Well, I have to name Elite: Dangerous, but Elite: Dangerous aside, I think there are so many games I've got so much enjoyment out of through time that I really enjoyed games like Zelda, from a long time ago now. More recently, I think games like Skyrim are very compelling, a game you can really immerse yourself in. All the way back to '80s, games like Defender from the arcades right in the start of the programme. So, I think I'd rather not actually give one answer because that's too easy.

Chris - Very diplomatic. Just briefly, with Elite: Dangerous, you obviously had to move into the internet regime to make this a multiplayer game. How do you manage to bring all of these players together in real time across the internet when I know for a fact that my internet connection where I live is so shaky. There's no way I'm sending you data to your service fast enough to match everything up. How have you solved the problem of getting everyone to experience a smooth game play, like you have?

David - Well, we don't need a lot of data. The game will balance that sort of thing. To play, we mix a server traffic with peer-to-peer traffic, so from a technical point of view, some of the data is going directly between the two computers, some goes via our service. We have different modes. You can play solo, so you don't necessarily play online so much, but you still see the input of all the other people. And that goes just to our server and it's a very low speed data connection. So with all of these, it's sort of, to a degree, it's sort of horse's for courses. But the game itself also does some balancing. So overall, we've found it's been working very well.

Chris - You mentioned to me previously that you'd actually almost possibly discovered some new science with Elite: Dangerous as well because when you modelled the galaxy, faithfully, it didn't look right.

David - Yes. The night sky you see in the game is actually drawn from all the objects that are stored in the game - if you like from the galaxy - and it didn't quite look like the night sky were really see. There were a lot more dark bits in the real night sky and the thing that's evident - if you just look at the galactic centre, towards the constellation Sagittarius, you see that there's a bright section of stars above and below. So, it looks like a sort of milky dust, the actual Milky Way. And that's because the middle section, whihc is actually the brightest bit of the galactic centre, is obscured by a large amount of dust. What we found we had to do is add way more dust than we're expecting to, to get it to match up. And it's interesting, it ties in with a lot of other scientific observations. So, over a period of about 22 million years, the sun oscillates through the galactic plane and extinction events actually coincide - there's a peak at roughly every 22 million years. So, it's quite probable, there is a lot of matter in the narrow galactic plane that ends up coming through our solar system, disrupting it. So, there is a lot to suggest that this is real science because we've matched it empirically with the real night sky.

55:13 - How are computerised voices generated?

How are robotic voices created? And what's their future? Will they ever sound human?

How are computerised voices generated?

We put this to Cambridge University's Dr Pierre Lanchantin...

[Transcript to follow]

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