Your brain on games

Original article was published on Deep Learning on Medium

The brain is not built for change.

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 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, feeling 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 is 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 sexual. 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 ass 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. World of Warcraft 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 (play) have gone into building the World of Warcraft world with little or no real world results other than once again to monetize game play. 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.