Neuroscience in gaming: A Look Under the Hood

This article is part of a series about how the brain functions when playing video games. In it, we’ll look at what happens in the brain to convert sensory information into an immersive gaming experience. The rest of the series will examine individual functions, such as attention and decision-making. However, the aim of this article is to provide an introduction to the brain regions and pathways involved in playing video games.

Our brains determine how we understand and interact with the world around us, whether it’s real or simulated. They’re made up of billions of specialised cells, 100 billion of which are neurons – cells that transmit information as electrical signals. Staggeringly, these only make up about 10% of the cells in the brain. The rest of these are supporting or ‘glial’ cells that help neurons develop, fight infection and clear up waste. Working together, these cells allow the brain to act as an interface between our bodies and the world around us.

On the simplest level, the brain is an input-output machine that inputs sensory information and outputs a response (behaviour). Sensory information (i.e. information received via the eyes, ears, nose, mouth or skin) comes from the environment around us and is converted into electrical signals by the sense organs. When you play a video game, your brain receives three main types of sensory information;

  • Visual information (i.e. the images you see on the screen)
  • Auditory information (the sound effects, music or voices of NPCs)
  • Somatosensory (touch) information (e.g. if you’re using a controller that vibrates in response to game events).

From this, your brain needs to figure out what the information means, whether it’s relevant, and how to respond to it.

Information received by the sense organs is sent to the sensory regions of the cerebral cortex (the top layer of the brain) for processing. In terms of structure, the brain can be divided into four lobes, which have different but overlapping functions; the occipital, temporal, parietal and frontal lobes. As the top layer of the brain, the cortex spans all four of these lobes and has different functional areas. The visual cortex, in the occipital lobe, processes information from the eyes to identify patterns, shapes and movement. Similarly, the auditory cortex, in the temporal lobe, processes sound from the ears to distinguish between language and music/sound effects. Finally, the somatosensory cortex, based in the parietal lobe, processes touch, pressure and temperature related information received from the skin.

Once identified, this sensory information is then sent to the parietal lobe. In this area, it is combined with information from the other sense organs and processed until it makes sense. The combined information is then sent to another of the four regions – the frontal lobe. Here, the information is used to decide whether a response is needed, and if so, what type of response. Usually this takes the form of some kind of voluntary movement. This might be adjusting your gaze, tightening your grip, pressing a button or clicking the mouse. The frontal lobe plans this movement, engages the areas of the brain needed to organise the response, then actions it.

Your response to sensory information may vary depending on what it is. If you identify something that indicates you’re approaching a boss battle, e.g. a specific sound effect, or if you see that you’ve received a suspiciously large amount of health potions, your brain will process this and determine whether it’s important. Since your brain is likely to view this information as relevant, it might action some kind of motor response. This could be sitting up straighter, focusing on the screen, or pressing a button to check you have enough potions.

The sensory information you receive from a game – and the response it triggers – varies by game and by genre. Generally, an action/adventure game will produce more sensory information in a given time period than a puzzle game like Tetris. However, only the game’s mechanics will determine which brain functions will be used to generate a response to the sensory information – and therefore which regions of the brain will be used to play the game.

Enjoyed what you’ve read? Check out our feature on Our Pet Peeves in Gaming and Disability in Gaming: The Battle for Accessibility!

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1 Reply to “Neuroscience in gaming: A Look Under the Hood”

  1. Avatar

    Just read through your article
    Found it very interesting. Will read and digest agaon later
    Look forward to next part.
    Luv Brian x

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