Video Games are Oceans Apart

by admin | May 19th, 2004

Author: Mark Steinberg

Video games have become a staple in the American sensory and entertainment diet. The interactive animated electronic screen prevails over games and entertainment the way word processing software has essentially replaced typewriters. If video games are the fast food of the mind, then there is mounting evidence that we are filling minds with unhealthy junk and supersizing the delivery to boot. In contrast to other pariahs of the modern age, video game phenomena are largely skewed toward the younger population, particularly children and adolescents.

It is estimated that a staggering 92 percent of young people tune into the virtual worlds of electronic entertainment purveyed on computers, arcades, and electronic gaming devices. In 2003, computer and video game sales generated a whopping $16.9 billion! Amidst the hoopla of retail frenzy and controversy about video games, it mostly escapes the professional and lay communities alike that there are video games specifically designed and proven to reduce the risks often associated with and attributed to the video genre. Aside form aesthetic or thematic appeal, video games are not restricted to a single stratum commercial wave that engulfs and drowns its players in a tsunami of mindless capitulation.

There are video games that teach the mind to think, to focus, and to function more flexibly and grow toward greater capacity for learning and self-regulation. This trend unfortunately can become submerged in the tides of digital sensuality swelling from an opposite direction. An anecdote from my college years hints at the paradox of confusing or substituting entities with apparently superficial similarities:

During my graduate studies in the 1970’s, I had an erudite professor, well-known for his academic work and publications in the field of measurement. Dr. Paul Lohnes was a swarthy and eloquent Irish mentor whose passions waxed redolent of the New England seashore. Lohnes told the story of the time he was encouraged to accept a professorship at Stanford University. He was tempted by the opportunity. As he stood out on the veranda of a Stanford colleague’s home, basking in the magnificent view of the mountains and the gentle California air, wooed by the invitation to join a prestigious faculty, Lohnes wistfully declined.

“I dunno,” Lohnes pined, “Stanford is wonderful and all, but it’s just too far from the ocean.”

His colleague rallied with rebuttal: “Well, Paul, you don’t have to live in Palo Alto. Lots of people make the commute from around Santa Cruz, where you’re right by the ocean. Or you could live…”

“No, no, no,” Lohnes interrupted. “Not that ocean – ‘The’ ocean!”

Perspective looms significantly over interpretation, and the frame of reference makes a difference. In the world of video game effects on brain functioning, different types of games are indeed oceans apart. It behooves consumers, parents, educators, and other professionals to survey the software landscape with an eye toward the geography of behavior and the topography of brainwaves while surfing the digital age.

The miniaturization and sophistication of digital electronics have done more than create virtual worlds. Whereas my grandmother used to marvel at black and white television, questioning how they got the little people inside those small boxes, now the mature generations warn us against the evils of computer addiction, the escalation of copycat violence and insensitivity, and the dissipation of real relationships in trade for gaming escapades and instant messaging.

Professionals and the consumer public tend to regard video games as entertainment run amok, a dark side of technology indulging and reinforcing a cavalcade of fringe and mainstream young minds as prey to the spell of make-believe lives. The method of quieting Johnny on those long car rides is the invidious electronic companion that will crowd out the reality of homework, chores, sports, relationships, and eventually may extrude upon the steering wheel itself as Johnny eventually sits behind it as he drives in traffic. Indeed, potentially a deal with the Devil himself.

There is, however, a flip side to Mutant Forces of the Avenger, Bloody Vampire Sequel or whatever is currently selling at the outlets. More than a silver lining in the clouds, the video games that productively train minds (using operant conditioning of brainwaves) are perhaps the most effective direct use of technology’s creative and productive purposes. As an analog, we can cite the dubious programming on commercial TV to justify disparaging video culture, or we can exalt the same technology that allows us to benefit from microsurgeries, to control astronomical instruments from millions of miles distant, or review the action of a sports event, crime, or undersea adventure. And, yes, we can not only take pictures of the brain, but we can transform those pictures in virtually real time so that children can watch them as characters of their own brain activity which they can modify to improve their brains, their behavior, and their lives.

This type of video game playing is done in conjunction with training the EEG. Known as EEG biofeedback, EEG neurofeedback, or just simply biofeedback or neurofeedback, these games train and condition brainwaves while children operate them remotely by sending electrical signals from their scalps. In these games, the operation, the brain involvement, and the after-effects are quite different from the entertainment genre.

The differences between video games as entertainment and video games as brain training are summarized as follows:

Entrainment versus operant conditioning for flexibility
Arcade-style and role-playing commercial video games generally have the effect upon the brain known as entrainment. This means that the stimulus (the game) essentially recruits brain circuits into a pattern that matches the electrical rhythms of the stimulus. Quite literally, the brain of a player really involved in the video game begins to tune to the electrical frequencies generated by the game. It becomes habit-forming and, in many instances, is quite pleasurable to the player. This “programming” is not peculiar to video games, but plays a role in other activities we consider harmless or even useful. For instance, when you find yourself moving to the beat of a familiar song, it is because you are entrained to the frequencies generated by the music – that is, your brain is syncing up to an external frequency.

High sensory stimulation versus sensory modulation
The big draws in commercial video games are realistic graphics and high sensory stimulation. This “realism” may temporarily satisfy the ubiquitous addictive cravings for stimulation; unfortunately, their energy consumption of computer processing power and programming genius does not translate into lasting concentration or edification of the game players. Instead, this attraction leads to more addictive craving for such stimulation (which may be good for the computer game business, but is not so healthy for consumers).

By contrast, neurofeedback games use interesting, yet rather basic graphics and sounds to promote sensory modulation –the awareness and control of subtle changes and differences in state, the arousal level of the mind and body that reflects attention, alertness, perception, and mood. With regard to the state of boredom and need for stimulation or entertainment, commercial video games tend to offer a fleeting fix for the craving, whereas neurofeedback games actually fix the insatiable need or craving. Learning to control and modulate inner state has profound positive impact upon one’s ability to adjust to circumstances and to levels of stimulation that may not be optimal (such as “boring” schoolwork).

Punishment (direct & vicarious modeling) versus shaping
A major concern about computer gaming is the amount and realism of violence that permeate most games. The pundits claim that this is surely setting bad examples (at the least) and more than likely tied directly to increases in aggression and its expression in real life. The argument against video violence is that it desensitizes players to violence and suffering and that it both models aggressive punishment and provides encouragement (in the form of game points and victories) for such console behavior. In other words, the whole idea in playing many of these games is to punish your opponent. In so doing, you hone skills and demonstrate mastery, all the while discarding empathy as a relevant emotion. After all, it’s just a game, right?

In neurofeedback games, there is neither violence nor punishment. Game characters and objects do not get hurt, killed, or eliminated. Game success is simply represented by adduced points, faster movement, and particular displays of sounds and graphics. Better brain activity is rewarded in combination with consistency and sustained performance in a process known as shaping. Irrelevant or undesirable response patterns are simply ignored (or unrewarded). Although superficially simple, both the programming and the effects on human behavior with these games are far more complex and adaptive than those of typical commercial games, wherein faulty moves result in punishment or game termination.

In order to behave correctly and effectively, people must respond to challenges more flexibly and constructively than by shooting them down or destroying them. When poor or wrong responses are punished, people tend to become, anxious, aggressive, inhibited, or helpless.

Thus, engaging with a video game which only rewards appropriate moves but does not penalize inappropriate ones has vastly different effects on brain capacity, stability, and motivation.

Competitive win-lose versus self-paced self-regulation
Generically, video games carry the objective of winning – defeating either one or several opponents or the computer itself. In neurofeedback, there is no “winning” in the traditional sense (or losing, either). Success derives from playing the game, thereby creating a salubrious effect on one’s state, the practice and increase control over mastery of one’s brain activity, and a cumulative degree of self-control, flexibility, consistency, and persistent keenness in the face of challenge.

Imaginary experience & pseudo control versus real body experience & self-control
People enjoy fantasy and escape. Without question, the computer age has progressively heightened and variegated the types of such entertainment and the opportunities for its distribution. Fantasy is a useful tool in stress reduction, play, and human psychological development. Like other palliatives and escapes, imaginary experience can substitute for the necessary (and rewarding) realities of actual experiences. Though not limited to the domain of video games, the temptations to overindulge in imaginary life increase with our use of technology. These excesses and temptations should be counterbalanced by real experience.

Neurofeedback training promotes the exact opposite of escape. Ironically, changing brain state exerts its relieving effects whether it happens through diminution or augmentation of present conditions of reality! Whereas the phantasmagoric possibilities that commercial games materialize through simulation do provide entertainment and respite, the necessary cost is suspension of reality. Conversely, neurofeedback creates relief and respite by immersion and reinforcement of the present – a state of brain awareness so often muddied by inadequate neuronal regulation that transport to proper regulation causes people to feel rested and recharged.

Training vigilant high-adrenaline emotional state (stress) versus training relaxation responses to challenge
As discussed above, people become conditioned to high-alert internal states. After awhile, the nervous system recognizes such stressed states as frames of reference for “normal”, and seeks and relies upon adrenaline rushes to maintain these states. This habit is deleterious to the body and deceptive to the mind. Commercial video games capitalize on this addictive need in much the same way as junk food purveyors cater to our yen for sugar and fat cravings. The cycle feeds and escalates itself.

Neurofeedback, on the other hand, develops a different cycle. By playing games that reinforce only health-promoting and adaptive responses to challenges, children and adults can easily train themselves to relax and focus while finding and producing the most effective and appropriate responses to the situational demands.

Addictive tolerance effects versus generalizable enduring effects
A significant problem with many things that feel good is that, over time, you need more of them to induce the accustomed effect. Pleasurable and salutary benefits aside, actions and substances must often be intensified to obtain desired outcome. Whether gaming or medicating, jolting or relaxing, habit usually breeds tolerance (acclimatization that results in the need for increased amounts to get the previous effect). Thus, players anticipate and may require heightened levels of intensity, speed, violence, realism, or whatever achieves the “wow” threshold.

With neurofeedback, people tend to develop greater sensitivity to their brain states, thus achieving more exquisite control over the cadence of the game. It becomes more enjoyable when you do it better, so novelty yields to self-challenges and self-observations about consistency and mastery. The actual neurological effects are correspondingly different, too. Whereas games that rely on stimulation and novelty for player fulfillment build in their own satiation and obsolescence (paving the way for the next generation of stronger dosage), neurofeedback makes the brain more balanced and normalized in terms of sensitivity and perception. Because both the effects and the game-playing itself deal in the currency of brain state and arousal level, the practice of neurofeedback play generalizes enduringly beyond the transient game situation. This, too, explains the ubiquitous reduction in dosage need for both prescribed and recreational substances to induce the desired effects.

The digital age is most certainly pressing upon us with its logarithmic presence and its permanence. Video gaming is here, and we had better accommodate the landscape of its variety with suitable vehicles and keen understanding of its neural topography. Whether we are preoccupied with the dangers of terrain or just interested in brain reactions and entertainment, it is wise to recognize that video games are indeed oceans apart. In the tides of digital change that sweep upon us, it is wise to discern the differential effects of video games upon behavior. Lest we become engulfed by the seas of commercial enticement, we need to distinguish between all those video games and “the” video games.

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