Your brain is plastic. No, not like the picture to the right but in the sense that everything which makes us who we are (our thoughts, beliefs and understanding of the world around us) can be subject to change. This change may come from our interactions with the world, as we learn to adapt and live in a changing environment, or the change may come from within, as we make conscious decisions to view the world differently. This natural plasticity helped our ancestors adapt when their environments changed and undoubtedly played an important role in their continued survival. However, a recent media storm has grown around the way brains, especially teenage brains, may be altered in response to societies’ increasing use of technology. This interest has raised concerns surrounding the impact technology, such as social media and video games, could have on the growing brain.
Video games in particular may be thought to bring together a ‘perfect storm’ of attributes primed to alter your brain. Specifically, they provide us with challenges that stretch our abilities but that are also matched to the our current gaming level; thus, are always achievable. This type of challenge makes us feel particularly good, since we feel as though we have earned our own rewards (such as in-game experience points or unlocking a new level of game play) through what we perceive to be hard work. Thus, we feel a sense of accomplishment and our brains are thought to undergo changes which reinforce certain game-related behaviours.
A number of scientific studies have explored the negative effects gaming can have on the developing brain. And, there have been a range of reactive articles exploring the notion of a dystopian future where a generation of emotionally blunted sociopathic adults cruise around heartlessly re-enacting crimes from games such as Grand Theft Auto. However, it is important to understand that many diverse activities lead to changes in brain structure and function and that these changes are not always negative. Indeed, some studies are now beginning to highlight the positive effects games have on development and how games may be designed to improve mental function.
Interestingly, game developers and scientists are now coming together in the hope of tackling depression, a major cause of disability, especially amongst young adults (up to a quarter of young people will have experienced a depressive disorder by the age of 19). Sadly, shortages in trained councillors and the reluctance of some young people to seek traditional help means that fewer than a fifth of young people with depressive disorders will actually receive treatment.
A research group, lead by professor Sally Merry at the University of Auckland, have developed a role playing game (SPARX), based around the principles of cognitive behavioural therapy (CBT), which aims to help young people cope with depressive disorders. SPARX is an interactive first person role playing game which allows the user to design a playable character, who is then charged with restoring ‘balance’ to a fantasy world dominated by GNATs (Gloomy Negative Automatic Thoughts). The game leads the player through a range of interactive levels where they learn different CBT techniques aimed at interrupting and readdressing negative thought patterns. At the beginning and end of each level the user interacts with a ‘guide’ who explains the purpose of the in-game activities, provides education, gauges the players mood and sets them real-life challenges (equivalent to homework). Players’ progress is monitored throughout and young people who are not seen to improve are prompted to seek further help from their referring clinicians (a trailer of SPARX is available at www.sparx.org.nz).
Studies suggest that SPARX significantly reduces depression, hopelessness and anxiety in young gamers and that the game is at least as good as traditional CBT. Game designers have also worked hard to make sure the game is engaging for young people; and this seems to have worked: 60% of players completed the whole game while 86% completed at least 4 levels and the majority of young people stated that they would recommend the game to their friends. This is a pretty impressive statistic, since teenage gamers are notoriously hard to please and a self help fantasy RPG certainly sounds like the kind of thing teens would dismiss as being ‘lame’. The success of this intervention suggests that such games could be a great way to treat patients who do not have access to therapy or who may be reluctant to engage with conventional therapeutic methods.
Ultimately the world of gaming is huge and only getting larger. It is currently estimated that by the age of 21 the average young gamer will have spent around 10,000 hours gaming; this is almost equivalent to the time they will have spent in school! With young adults investing so much of their free time in the gaming world, it’s about time we set about understanding the influence games have on development and perhaps, as SPARX has done, start putting these games to work for us. Just think, if we could harness the pleasure gamers feel when working towards gaming-related goals, we could use this medium not only to educate but perhaps also to encourage people to ‘play’ at the biggest puzzle game around – scientific research. The future seems full of amazing possibilities, so put your game face on and join the fun!
Post by: Sarah Fox