The U.S. military has long supported the premise that learning through games can prepare soldiers for the complex, rapid-fire decision making of combat. Since 2002, they have offered new versions of their own game, America’s Army
, which lets potential recruits play at everything from boot camp to Special Forces missions. According to the gamemakers at West Point, the purpose of America’s Army
is to “give the player an idea of what it’s like for real U.S. Army soldiers to train for duty.” More than 4-and-a-half million registered players have completed the game’s basic training.
In the fall of 2003 two media researchers at the University of Southern California set up a study to look at the patterns of brain activity triggered by violent video games. Peter Vorderer and René Weber booked time on an fMRI machine, loaded a popular game called Tactical Ops on an adjoining computer console, and watched one test subject after another pretend to be part of a Special Forces team trying to prevent a terrorist attack.
Before Vorderer and Weber even looked at any of the brain scans, they were surprised by the behavior of the dozen or so adults who volunteered for the test. Participating in an fMRI study involves lying for extended periods of time in an extremely confined and loud space. Even a mild claustrophobic will invariably find the experience intolerable, and most people need a break after 20 minutes. But most of the Tactical Ops players happily stayed in the machine for at least an hour, oblivious to the discomfort and noise because they were so entranced by the game.
The genesis of this reaction may lie in the neurotransmitter dopamine. A number of studies have revealed that game playing triggers dopamine release in the brain, a finding that makes sense, given the instrumental role that dopamine plays in how the brain handles both reward and exploration. Jaak Panksepp, a neuroscientist collaborating with the Falk Center for Molecular Therapeutics at Northwestern University, calls the dopamine system the brain’s “seeking” circuitry, which propels us to explore new avenues for reward in our environment. The game world is teeming with objects that deliver clearly articulated rewards: more life, access to new levels, new equipment, new spells. Most of the crucial work in game interface design revolves around keeping players notified of potential rewards available to them and how much those rewards are needed.
If you create a system in which rewards are both clearly defined and achieved by exploring an environment, you’ll find human brains drawn to those systems, even if they’re made up of virtual characters and simulated sidewalks. It’s likely those Tactical Ops players in an fMRI machine were able to tolerate the physical discomfort of the machine because the game environment so powerfully stimulated the brain’s dopamine system.
Of course, dopamine is also involved in the addictiveness of drugs. “The thing to remember about dopamine is that it’s not at all the same thing as pleasure,” says Gregory Berns, a neuroscientist at Emory University School of Medicine in Atlanta, who looks at dopamine in a cultural context in his book, Satisfaction. “Dopamine is not the reward; it’s what lets you go out and explore in the first place. Without dopamine, you wouldn’t be able to learn properly.”
What kind of cognitive skills should we expect to find in the Pokémon generation? Not surprisingly, Gee has got a list. “They’re going to think well about systems; they’re going to be good at exploring; they’re going to be good at reconceptualizing their goals based on their experience; they’re not going to judge people’s intelligence just by how fast and efficient they are; and they’re going to think nonlaterally. In our current world with its complex systems that are quite dangerous, those are damn good ways to think.”
Gee’s remarks remind me of an experience I had a few years earlier, introducing my 7-year-old nephew to SimCity 2000, the best-selling urban simulator that lets you create a virtual metropolis on your computer, build highways and bridges, zone areas for development, and raise or lower taxes. Based on the player’s decisions, neighborhoods thrive or decline, streets get overrun with traffic or remain wastelands, and criminals prosper or disappear. When I walked my nephew through the game, I gave him only the most cursory overview of the rules; I was mostly just giving him a tour of the city I’d built. But he was absorbing the rules nonetheless. At one point, I showed him a block of rusted, crime-ridden factories that lay abandoned and explained that I’d had difficulty getting this part of my city to come back to life. He turned to me and said, “I think you need to lower your industrial tax rates.” He said it as calmly and as confidently as if he were saying, “I think we need to shoot the bad guy.”
In a 20-minute tour of SimCity, my nephew had learned a fundamental principle of urban economics: Some areas zoned for specific uses can falter if the zone-specific taxes are too high. Of course, if you sat my 7-year-old nephew down in an urban studies classroom, he would be asleep in 10 seconds. But just like those Tactical Ops players happily trapped for an hour in an fMRI, something in the game world had pulled at him. He was learning in spite of himself.
Discover ran an earlier version of this article in 2005.