23 July 23
Atomic Antelope’s Chris Stevens, who created the interactive book Alice for iPad, hopes neuroscience research can find non-violent triggers to mimic the rush of pleasure gamers feel when firing guns during play.
He’s even calling on publishers to invest millions of dollars in cutting-edge magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) scanners to better understand the impact of games on our brains. Stevens believes that by measuring physiological responses during play, developers can create compelling – and peaceful – experiences.
“In games such as Grand Theft Auto, which I love, you find yourself kicking a man who is already dead,” he says. “It seems we have reached a point at which we can go no further. There can only be a good outcome from neuroscience research.
“We know that weapons fire triggers a region which dampens your empathy and it’s up for debate whether there are broader consequences to firing that gun. My interest stems from the idea that there may be other equally powerful triggers that don’t involve violence.”
MRI scanners show scientists changes in the brain, mapping activity by ‘lighting up’ areas with heightened blood flow. But they are expensive, coming in at $3 million for a machine with a strong 3 Tesla magnet.
“The first game publisher which buys an MRI scanner will make its money back in publicity,” says Stevens, a former journalist. “It’s our best empirical measurement tool for understanding how to engage the human brain.
“Yet for decades it’s as if developers have been driving a car with no speedometer,” he adds, referring to the reliance on reported emotions and QA in game development.
MRI scanners indicate activity in areas associated with different emotions in response to stimuli. Stevens is particularly interested in how the striatum – the area of the brain associated with reward – is affected by play.
He wants to explore how developers can exploit the human brain’s dopamine pleasure-reward circuitry to hook players, and suggests that game developers would not want to light up the striatum constantly in some kind of sensory overload, but believes games could be developed to target players’ emotions with scientific accuracy.
However, there are those who question the usefulness of neuroscience research for game developers. Adrian Hon, co-founder and chief creative officer of Zombies, Run! developer Six To Start, is well-placed to analyse the potential for crossover. Before joining his previous firm Mind Candy, Hon studied natural sciences, specialising in neuroscience, at Cambridge University, with a spell at the University of California in San Diego before beginning a PhD at Oxford.
“It’s not that MRI isn’t useful,” Hon tells us. “It’s useful for a lot of things. But if you could make a better game using MRI scans, making a better game would be the last thing you’d do. You’d use it to find better ways to interrogate people, sell advertising or conduct business. Games are very far down the list.
“You can look at someone’s brain while they play a game. While playing Journey, if soaring music comes along, it lights up the brain; the auditory cortex is more active. What do you do with that information?” Hon argues that the same response might be triggered by subjecting the player to ‘horrible’ noise.
“I think at the moment there are limits to what you can deduce from the information. If you wanted to be uncharitable you could say MRI is a bunch of pretty pictures. That is probably going too far, but it’s not the sort of massive insight that we might fear or hope.”
Professor Derek Jones, a structural neuroscientist working on improving methods of understanding the makeup of the brain at Cardiff University in Wales, explains that MRI scanners are becoming increasingly useful with advancing technology.
“The stronger the magnet in a scanner, the finer the detail, and the strength of the magnet is improving all the time,” he says. “The magnets are 1.5 Tesla in hospitals, but 3 Tesla in universities and there are now 7 Tesla machines.
“I would never say never with regard to using functional MRI to enhance videogames. The challenge is to quantify the brain’s response to the game.”
Questions around how we might understand MRI data reflect the need for better understanding in the field, lessening the urgency of any debate around the ethics of neuroscience-informed game design. Nevertheless, the notion of games that bypass our conscious responses by targeting brain function to give pleasure is one that could divide players and developers.
But any ethical questions are moot, argues Stevens, who believes this kind of manipulation is nothing new. “It seems like everyone is doing this already, but in a crude way,” he says, referring to the hours of psychological probing behind every big game release.
Stevens feels the ethics of neuroscience in games should only be judged when we see the outcome of research, arguing that developers are already attuned to exploiting vulnerabilities in the human psyche, even if they don’t label it in scientific terms.
The random reward principle which explains the draw of the roulette table is core to many games and is evident every time we open a chest in Skyrim or purchase a player pack in FIFA 12. Stevens hopes that encouraging more developers to work with scientists will see these cheap thrills replaced with engaging game experiences.
“I would like to see many more beautiful games like Fez and Limbo,” he tells us. “When I was a kid, games were more beautiful and magical and immersed me in fantastical, peaceful and enjoyable landscapes. Cinema is heading the same way.
“It would be nice if there was a means by which to justify games like this scientifically.”
Hon remains sceptical about the usefulness of games developed using neuroscientific data. “You could track emotional responses in a way that the subject couldn’t report,” he says. “But what do you do with that information? If an author scanned my brain when I read a book, they would still have needed a good idea for the book.
“This is not how you make good art.”
But Stevens is convinced MRI can play a part in the future of games. He foresees a time when the mind mapping of functions of the brain has been firmly established, when developers can create an algorithm that constantly responds to the reactions of players wearing tiny MRI scanners.
“Who knows what games might look like in the future,” says Stevens, “but if a feedback loop can be created where the technician is eliminated from the equation there will be a dialogue between the gamer’s brain and the game itself.
“The results might only be possible in lab conditions, but play could become a super-saturated miasma of pleasurable game triggers. It would be the gamer who designs the game in his own subconscious.”