Allan Reiss, MD, and his colleagues have a pretty good idea why your husband or boyfriend can’t put down the Halo 3. In a first-of-its-kind imaging study, the Stanford University School of Medicine researchers have shown that the part of the brain that generates rewarding feelings is more activated in men than women during video-game play.
As Holly pointed out, “activating the reward center of the brain” is pretty much a very dense and literal way to say “generated an experience that in some way felt good”. Drugs work by directly generating neurochemical experiences, which isn’t even the same thing as feeling good; if you find the experience of being completely emotionally numb alarming and upsetting you’re unlikely to become addicted to Xanax, and if you find the experience of being hyper-wired and unable to relax alarming or upsetting you’re unlikely to become addicted to cocaine. The physical dependence comes long after repetitions of the experience performed because the experience was enjoyable in some way.
All of which is to say what should be obvious to the researchers- it certainly is to the gaming industry- which is that if anyone’s getting “addicted” to Halo 3, it’s because playing it is fun. Games that aren’t fun don’t get played and don’t sell, which is why Minesweeper hasn’t had the same impact on society as crack despite being theoretically a very efficient reward-delivery system.
“These gender differences may help explain why males are more attracted to, and more likely to become ‘hooked’ on video games than females,” the researchers wrote in their paper, which was recently published online in the Journal of Psychiatric Research.
More than 230 million video and computer games were sold in 2005, and polls show that 40 percent of Americans play games on a computer or a console. According to a 2007 Harris Interactive survey, young males are two to three times more likely than females to feel addicted to video games, such as the Halo series so popular in recent years.
It’s also possible that what explains why there are more and more dedicated male gamers than female gamers is that the gaming industry is a massive boys’ club, virtually all video games are almost exclusively designed by and marketed to young men, and the industry overall has so little idea how one would possibly market a video game to girls or women that when they get a vague inkling that women are a large and growing subset of their market and try, the result is almost always something along the lines of “Barbie Horse Adventures”. (Real game*.) The only time that video games aren’t aggressively built around male fantasies and male gaze is games marketed “for the whole family”, which tends to lump women in with grandparents and young children. It wouldn’t be a groundbreaking research finding to note that things tend to be most popular with the age and gender for whom they are expressly designed by and for and marketed to.
Look, I love video games and I’ve been playing them since the Atari 7800, but I and every other female gamer on the planet know that the industry hasn’t got the slightest fucking idea what to do with us. Yet we’re still playing anyway, because even if we’re nowhere near the target market there’s still enough basically fun in them to make playing them worth it. I will note however that I don’t tend to go for the “extremely masculine space marine in space armor shoots everyone from behind a chest-high wall in a manly fashion” genre.
Despite the popularity of video and computer games, little is known about the neural processes that occur as people play these games.
Possibly because running brain imaging studies is a huge amount of money invested into a necessarily small number of subjects in order to get results like “things people find fun activate fun region of brain”? Or because playing games is a broad term for experiences that can be fairly complex and often differ hugely in their structure and therefore likely cognitive handling? All of which suggest that the data gained actually will tell you almost nothing of worth unless it turned out that result yielded was “things people find fun activate primal terror region of brain”?
And no research had been done on gender-specific differences in the brain’s response to video games.
Possibly because the belief that the data gained will tell you anything useful is even stupider than the above? Running studies on how women’s versus men’s brains handle video games is every bit as sensible as running studies on how their brains handle other complex tasks that involve integrating rapid sensory input and problem-solving, like driving. Oh Christ except I know there’s some sort of women-drivers study out there taking this exact approach…
He and his colleagues became interested in exploring the concept of territoriality, and they determined the best way to do so was with a simple computer game.
The game is viewable on the article, by the way. If you don’t want to go look, I was going to describe it as a shitty version of Pong or Breakout, except Breakout was a tour de force compared to this thing. I know a game that looks like a freshman CS student’s final project isn’t a fair comparison to a commercially produced product, but using this thing to study gaming is like using a Big Wheels to study car culture. The article goes on to describe the rules and features of the game in case we’re too lazy to look, too.
The researchers designed a game involving a vertical line (the “wall”) in the middle of a computer screen. When the game begins, 10 balls appear to the right of the wall and travel left toward the wall. Each time a ball is clicked, it disappears from the screen. If the balls are kept a certain distance from the wall, the wall moves to the right and the player gains territory, or space, on the screen. If a ball hits the wall before it’s clicked, the line moves to the left and the player loses territory on the screen.
It manages to be even duller than it sounds, but possibly this is just my woman’s brain talking.
During this study, 22 young adults (11 men and 11 women) played numerous 24-second intervals of the game while being hooked up to a functional magnetic resonance imaging, or fMRI, machine. fMRI is designed to produce a dynamic image showing which parts of the brain are working during a given activity.
Young adults = broke undergrads. By the way, can we PLEASE stop pretending that eighteen year old North American college students are representative of the entire species in all times and places?
Study participants were instructed to click as many balls as possible; they weren’t told that they could gain or lose territory depending on what they did with the balls.
You… don’t really need to tell them that. It’s how the game works. You don’t really need to include an instruction manual with Pong in order for the result of “if you get the ball past the other paddle you get points” to not be a paradigm-changing surprise either. Unless these are broke college students with a really severe developmental disability, figuring out the rules and consequences of extremely simple games is a baseline skill.
Reiss said all participants quickly learned the point of the game, and the male and female participants wound up clicking on the same number of balls. The men, however, wound up gaining a significantly greater amount of space than the women. That’s because the men identified which balls—the ones closest to the “wall”—would help them acquire the most space if clicked.
“The females ‘got’ the game, and they moved the wall in the direction you would expect,” said Reiss, who is director of the Center for Interdisciplinary Brain Sciences Research. “They appeared motivated to succeed at the game. The males were just a lot more motivated to succeed.”
Or- and this could even be a legitimate research result- they had faster twitch reflexes. Possibly by what was likely to have been a childhood playing a lot of twitch games expressly marketed to them. Or they cared more about winning no matter how stupid the game in question they were playing was. Or they found rapidly clicking on balls slightly more soothing on the stress of sitting in a humming MRI machine during an apparently pointless experiment. Or…
After analyzing the imaging data for the entire group, the researchers found that the participants showed activation in the brain’s mesocorticolimbic center, the region typically associated with reward and addiction. Male brains, however, showed much greater activation, and the amount of activation was correlated with how much territory they gained. (This wasn’t the case with women.)
“Subjects who were more motivated to play and had more fun at it activate fun and motivation region of brain more”
Three structures within the reward circuit—the nucleus accumbens, amygdala and orbitofrontal cortex—were also shown to influence each other much more in men than in women. And the better connected this circuit was, the better males performed in the game.
“Fun and motivation region of brain more active when player is performing better” Also, the first rule of tautology club is the first rule of tautology club.
The findings indicate, the researchers said, that successfully acquiring territory in a computer game format is more rewarding for men than for women.
Or men are more rewarded by pointless computer games. Or men are more into a fidgety distraction when undergoing a boring and slightly unpleasant experience. Or men are more motivated to win at something even though the task seems utterly pointless for the sheer sake of winning. Actually, you probably could have enhanced the value of this study tenfold by providing a carefully worded questionnaire afterward asking the subject how they felt about what they were doing and what they thought the point of the game was- as well as whether video games were or had been among their hobbies.
And Reiss, for one, isn’t surprised. “I think it’s fair to say that males tend to be more intrinsically territorial,” he said. “It doesn’t take a genius to figure out who historically are the conquerors and tyrants of our species—they’re the males.”
Unless, of course, you’re not actually investigating but fishing for data to attach to a preformed conclusion. Also the statement “males tend to be more intrinsically territorial” can only be made by a man who has not paid that much attention to what the people in the Female Universe are doing. Within areas that they identify as important, women and girls can be viciously territorial. This shouldn’t be an evolutionarily challenging conclusion, either; in species that are markedly territorial, males don’t tend to be any more territorial than females are. They may be more involved with going out and securing it or defending it if in a species that lives in mixed-gender groups, but females don’t happily share territory in their absence either.
Reiss said this research also suggests that males have neural circuitry that makes them more liable than women to feel rewarded by a computer game with a territorial component and then more motivated to continue game-playing behavior.
Please do me a favor and go watch the video of the game in progress. Then see if you can say, with a straight face, that this thing imitates the process of gaining and defending “territory” to the point that we can make evolutionary conclusions about deep gender differences in our species based on it.
Thought exercise: can you imagine getting significantly different results if you hadn’t used North American college students? Mixed up the age range, or the study had been conducted in a lower-technology culture in which gaming doesn’t have a specific social context?
“Most of the computer games that are really popular with males are territory- and aggression-type games,” he pointed out.
As above, most computer games that are really popular are popular with males. Also, it’s actually really difficult to design a game that isn’t somehow based around “aggression” or “territory” or competition that’s still any fun whatsoever; virtual flower-arranging just isn’t that exciting. Your choices are pretty much limited to Tetris, Nintendogs, and the Katamari series. Though this attitude probably does explain why the MMORPG industry’s idea of making their product more attractive to women is including more collectible mini-pets and crafting activities**.
Reiss said the team’s findings may apply to other types of video and computer games. “This is a fairly representative, generic computer game,” he said, adding that he and his colleagues are planning further work in this area.
Uhhhhh… not really. This statement would have been true around the time of Pong’s release, but what it’s representative of and generic to is really extraordinarily boring computer games. The sad thing here is that it’s not like there’s the slightest amount of shortage of games that really explicitly are about acquiring and defending territory, and no shortage of male and female gamers skilled at playing them; this would be easy to actually study, though you’d probably have to forgo pretending that you need an MRI image to demonstrate that the players are having fun and experiencing motivation.
Comparing gamers to gamers and nongamers to nongamers would also be another good start- it’s not the instinctive first response of everybody, when handed a pointless game, to play to “win” it- and this makes a difference in motivation way, way more significant than gender.
I suspect that even if you suddenly managed to eliminate the cluelessness of game companies and the very… notably young-male dominated gamer culture of the “Tits or GTFO” reflex, women would probably remain the minority in gaming. Maybe this is even for neurological or hormonal reasons rather than the very gross and forceful cultural reasons that exist now. But attempting to use this to demonstrate that men conquered the world because they like to click dots faster is just… sad.
*The really sad thing is that these things are, in addition to being clumsily and stereotypically handled, incredible pieces of shit as a rule. Red Dead Redemption and Shadow of the Colossus are both better horse simulators even though that’s only a fraction of their gameplay. The failure of these sorts of games is often cited as why it’s fruitless for the industry to pursue anyone other than young males, but apparently the idea that the game must be well-made, pretty to look at, and fun to play is a male-specific marketing strategy.
**My Warcraft characters’ mini-pet collection pales next to Stingray’s or my guild leader’s. I craft because it makes me gold, but I resent the necessity, whereas Stingray’s main character has at least two special titles expressly earned from dedication to crafting professions. Meanwhile my two plate-wearing tanking characters whose express job in game is to get beaten up by the monsters have the bellies inexplicably cut out of their chest armor. Go on and ask whether this is true of the male models of the same armor. The plural of “anecdote” isn’t “data”, but if this is Blizzard’s way of marketing to women it’s not working out that well.