Study: Volume of Brain Structures Predicts Gaming Success

brainA recently published study found that achievement in a video game could be predicted by measuring the volume of three specific structures of the brain. Intrigued by something he noticed about gamers, Kirk Erickson, a professor of psychology at the University of Pittsburgh, decided to investigate why expert game players tend to have improved measures of attention and perception, but when training novice game players, those measures could not be improved, even over 20 hours of practice. His theory was that novice players couldn’t learn because the veteran players had specialized brains, and he put this to the test in his latest study. The study may in the future be a stepping stone to understand how the social benefits of social gaming attract players of different types.

Specifically, the study looked to areas of the brain within the striatum. “Our animal work has shown that the striatum is a kind of learning machine-it becomes active during habit formation and skill acquisition,” said Ann Graybiel, an Institute Professor at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. “So it made a lot of sense to explore whether the striatum might also be related to the ability to learn in humans.” Within the striatum, there are three key areas responsible for learning: the caudate nucleus and putamen are involved in motor learning and the nucleus accumbens is part of the brain’s reward center.


To test these hypothesis, the researchers used Magnetic Resonance Imaging (MRI) and analyzed 39 healthy adults (aged 18-28; 10 of them male) who had spent less than three hours a week playing video games in the previous two years. The players were split into two groups and asked to play a custom game entitled Space Fortress for 20 hours. Each group was asked to play the game slightly differently.

The first group was asked to maximize their score, and the second group was asked to periodically shift priorities in the game and focus on learning. The results came in such that players with the large nucleus accumbens were better in the early stages of training in both groups. This maps well to the idea of the nucleus accumbens as the reward center, and players who got more pleasure out of winning would work harder and learn faster.

The players with a larger caudate nucleus and putamen did better on the variable-priority training, showing that they were able to learn more throughout the 20 hours. The larger the brain structures, the more they were able to improve at the more disparate elements of the game, and were able to improve their game more by using the variable learning technique than by the ‘maximize your score’ technique.

In theory, the striatum could be playing a part in the addictiveness of social games like Farmville and Mafia Wars. The nucleus accumbens is the brain’s reward center, and surely successful gifting and social interactions cause pleasure in social game players. The game that was used in the study, Space Fortress, had no social elements, and doing a test to see whether there was a difference when looking at social games may be useful in the future.

In summary: the brain is a driving factor in gamers’ success. If your brain is wired so you find pleasure in winning, you’ll work harder and learn the quickest route to win. If your brain is wired for learning, you’ll thrive by testing different strategies and rounding out your abilities.