Your Brain on Games

Your Brain on Games

The brain is not built for change – A brief journey into the science of the brain and how video games play with your hormones

According to Evolutionary Neuroscientists like Professor Daniel Wolpert of Cambridge,  our brains developed a large capacity for memory and a frontal cortex to predict the  future, not like a fortune teller but fractions of seconds into the future. All animals do  this, witness a frog anticipating the future location of a fly so that he can eat. Humans do this extraordinarily well.  

People are able to predict the way a conversation is going to go, by observing a facial  expression. Or determine if someone is a threat by the posture of a person walking  towards us. Our brain takes the sensory data in the moment and maps it over past  experience. Then the brain retrieves the thinking/feeling/action patterns that are most  likely to result in survival, or in less dramatic circumstances result in pleasure rather  than pain.  

All of this is good news. Our survival is intact so that we successfully survive and pass on  our genetic material. The only downside is that once the brain stores a pattern it is difficult to change it. After all, our reactions don’t even seem like they are being generated  by our brains, rather they seem to be the way things are, reality. What this means is that 

our brains, at a fundamental level, are not designed for change, for transformation, for  extraordinary performance, or for breakthroughs.  

Yet the brain has systems for change.  

While it is true up to a certain point that our brains resist change, that’s not the whole  story. While one part of our brain resists change for our survival, another part is on the  lookout for new ways of being that might enhance our likelihood of survival. This part is  designed to overcome the resistance to change when significantly new events occur.  We see this part of the brain functioning in the endocrine system. This is the system that  regulates all of our hormones, each of which is a powerful drug. Runners well know the  runner’s high, caused by endorphins, a morphine like hormone that makes it possible  for us to endure the discomfort/pain of running.  

In terms of changing the brain there are two hormones that can act as powerful agents  of change. The first of these is DOPAMINE. Dopamine is the reward drug. The endocrine  system releases it when we win or are rewarded. Neuroscientists who study dopamine  call this “reward-learning”. The brain is running along generating our thoughts, feelings  and actions. And then something new arises, a new challenge or an unfamiliar situation.  If we choose an action that is successful we get a flood of dopamine to the brain. The  brain likes dopamine and it records this as a very good pattern to reactivate in the  future. 

The second hormone that can act as a powerful change agent in the brain is  OXYTOCIN. It is sometimes referred to as the “love hormone” because of its heightened  levels in childbirth and sexuality. Oxytocin is also triggered by as little as three seconds of  physical contact with another person, or by the memory of closeness to another or even  by imagining future closeness to another. Like dopamine it feels good to our brains and  we record the experience as a good pattern to reactivate in the future.  

Your Hormones at Play. 

Experiences that release dopamine and/or oxytocin are powerful ways to change the  brain. Given that game designers have a clear idea of what patterns they are attempting  to embed, they can be used to great effect and impact. Game designers are starting to  tap into integrating experiences that have the purpose of releasing these hormones in  the players of their games.  

Candy Crush is a good example of a game that has a highly polished reward model  integrated into the core of its game design constantly triggering the release of the  dopamine hormone. Fortnite and other massive multiplayer online games  with a cooperative play element constantly trigger the oxytocin hormone through their  game missions that can only be accomplished in partnership with other players of the  game.

My question is, to what end are we manipulating the hormones of game players? In the  case of the aforementioned Candy Crush, the sole purpose of the game is get players to  pay for more. Millions of hours of work and have gone into building the Fortnite world with little or no real world results other than once again to monetize gameplay. Monetizing isn’t bad, but it might not be the only thing we use games to  achieve.  

At Ncite we are primarily interested in using games to help people learn things that are  either very foreign (read new) or to help them to change patterns in their thinking and  behavior that give them access to better performance and a better life.