A groundbreaking study + video games on the brain + male brains vs. female brains

Allan Reiss and his fellow researchers have a good idea why your male counterpart can’t seem to put down his X-Box 360 controller. In a groundbreaking, imaging study, Stanford University School of Medicine scholars have found that part of the brain that generates rewarding feelings is more active in men than women while playing video games.

The differences between male and female brain-activity while playing video games may help us fully understand why males are actually much more likely to get addicted to Nintendo games than females. Over 100 million video games wer sold in 2005. According to a survey by Harris Interactive in 2007, younger males are at least 2 to 3 times more likely than females to feel addicted to playing video games!

Though video games are very popular, little research has been conducted in the area of neural processing and brain activity while people are actually playing the video games. And, to top things off, absolutely zero research has been conducted on gender-differences in the brain while playing video games. As you may have already eluded: this study is monumental.

This study was lead by Allan Reiss a Howard C. Robbins Professor of Psychiatry and Behavioral Sciences. Allan has been interested in studying gender differences throughout his entire career. In 2005, Reiss published a study that was able to show how mens’ and womens’ brains process comedy differently. He then directed his research towards exploring territoriality. His team thought that the best way to study territoriality would be by using a simple computer game.

How the research worked

Brain researchers devised a game which involved a vertical line, which was referred to as “the wall.” This “wall” was located in the middle of a computer screen. When each game began, 10 balls appeared to the right of the wall and moved left directly towards the wall. Each time a participant clicked on the ball, the ball disappeared from the screen. If the balls were kept a certain distance away from “the wall,” the wall moved further to the right and the player gained extra space (territory) on the screen. If the balls hit the wall before they were clicked by the players, “the wall” moved further to the left and the player lost space (territory) on the screen.

Who were the participants?

While playing the computer game, 11 men and 11 women (a total of 22 young adults) were hooked up to an fMRI machine which allowed researchers to understand what was going on in each of the brains. Each of the participants played several 24-second games while hooked up to the fMRI machine. The fMRI machines were able to produce dynamic images showing activity in specific areas of the brain during the game playing.

How the study worked + the results

While playing the games, participants were told to attempt to click on as many balls as possible. They were not told that they would gain or lose space (territory) on the screen depending on how successful they were with clicking. All participants learned quickly how to play the game and the purpose of it. All of the male and female participants wound up clicking on roughly the same number of balls. Though they were relatively even in ball clicks, the male participants gained a greater amount of territory than the women. This was due to the fact that men identified which balls – [the balls closest to the wall] – would help them acquire the most territory when clicked.

The females fully understood the concept of the game and they moved the wall in the right direction. The difference between the male and female territory at the end of the game was summed up by study leader Allan Reiss: “They (the females) appeared motivated to succeed at the game. The males were just a lot more motivated to succeed.”

After thoroughly analyzing the MRI imagery and data of the entire group of players (11 men and 11 women), the researchers learned that the participants’ brains showed activation in the mesocorticolimbic centera region commonly associated with addiction and reward. The difference between the male and female brains was in the amount of activation in the mesocorticolimbic center. The brains of the 11 male young adults showed much greater activity. And, to top things off, researchers discovered that the amount of activity closely correlated with how much space (territory) they gained during the game. (This correlation didn’t happen to occur in the women participants). Three more key brain structures involved in our reward circuitry: the amygdala, the orbitofrontal cortex, and the nucleus accumbens – were also shown to influence each other in men much more than women. The better connected this circuitry, the better the males performed at the computer game!

What these results suggest

The results of this study indicate that “acquiring territory” in a computer game is more rewarding for men than women. And researchers, especially lead researcher Allan Reiss, is of the least bit surprised. Reiss was quoted saying, “I think it’s fair to say that males tend to be more intrinsically territorial.” He later added the fact that, “It doesn’t take a genius to figure out who historically are the conquerors and tyrants of our species; they’re the males.”

Allan also thinks that this study suggests that men have neural circuitry in their brains that make them more liable than women to feel rewarded by playing computer or video games – especially those with territorial objectives. Reiss made the statement, “Based on this, it makes sense that males are more prone to getting hooked on video games than females.” Later, he added the fact that: “Most of the computer games that are really popular with males are territory and aggression-type games.” Researchers believe that the findings in this study may even apply to other types of video games. Though there are some questions that remain unanswered after this study, Reiss and his team are already working on further research in the area of the effects of video games on the brain niche; particularly in younger populations like children.

For more information note:
A report of this unique study has recently been published the Journal of Psychiatric Research online. http://med-www.stanford.edu