November 17, 2008
Your Brain On Video Games
I’ve always wondered whether the kind of video games you like (or whether you like video games at all) tells you about what kind of person you are. Early arcade games were built around reflexes, patterns, and a relatively limited set of moves, attracting the kind of guys featured in King of Kong. My older brother is pretty good at sports, but unbelievably good at any kind of sports game, even ones he hasn’t played before — even sports he hasn’t played before. Some people’s brains just seem to be wired for certain kinds of games. Me, I’m good at a lot of video games, but I really like Minesweeper, Final Fantasy II, and Wii Tennis.
Clive Thompson writes a little bit about the relationship between the brain and video games in his review of Mirror’s Edge, a new first-person video game that (Thompson says) uniquely leverages human neurology — specifically our sense of proprioception, “your body’s sense of its own physicality”:
Most first-person shooters do not create any sense of proprioception. You may be looking out the eyes of your character, but you don’t have a good sense of the dimensions of the rest of your virtual body — the size and stride of your legs, the radius of your arms. At most, you can see your arms carrying your rifle out in front of you. But otherwise, the designers treat your body as if it were just a big, refrigerator-size box…
Mirror’s Edge, in contrast, does something very subtle, but very radical. It lets you see other parts of your body in motion.
When you run, you see your hands pumping up and down in front of you. When you jump, your feet briefly jut up into eyeshot — precisely as they do when you’re vaulting over a hurdle in real life. And when you tuck down into a somersault, you’re looking at your thighs as the world spins around you…
The upshot is that these small, subtle visual cues have one big and potent side effect: They trigger your sense of proprioception. It’s why you feel so much more “inside” the avatar here than in any other first-person game. And it explains, I think, why Mirror’s Edge is so curiously likely to produce motion sickness. The game is not merely graphically realistic; it’s neurologically realistic.
But I wonder — what’s going on in my brain (and my hands) when I’m playing Pac-Man, Breakout, or even Minesweeper? The neurological realism of all of those games is pretty minimal. What’s exciting about them? Also: what’s different about the neurological realism of Mirror’s Edge, and the physical realism of, say, Wii Tennis?