Neuroscience in Gaming Part 1: Decision-Making
Decision-making is a process that involves choosing between a range of options based on the information in our environment. This can be as simple as deciding whether to cross the road, whether to buy a coffee on the way into work, or deciding on best response to give in a conversation.
We are constantly receiving information from the world around us, and constantly making decisions as a result. Many of these happen outside of our awareness, whereas some are conscious decisions. This is especially true in video games, regardless of the genre.
Decision-making in video games is often more logical and linear than decision-making in the so-called real world. This is usually because the information you receive is more clearly presented – e.g. stat bars on the side of the screen that represent your finances, health and stamina. Since most mechanics are based on a carefully calculated algorithm, events tend to happen in a relatively predictable fashion. The physics are simple and consistent, the NPCs only have limited dialogue options. The enemies have patterns of attack that can be exploited in order to defeat them. Despite this, the decisions required in a video game are still relevant and similar to those made in reality.
There are three main types of decision-making, each of which are used when playing video games.
The first, perceptual decision-making, is probably the simplest. Your brain receives sensory signals (also called stimuli) from the world around you (sounds, sights, smells, tastes, sensations etc.) and combines them together. The brain then uses your experiences and/or knowledge to make sense of these stimuli. Once enough stimuli have been collected, they will be used to make a decision. In video games, perceptual decision-making can take many forms – deciding whether to dodge or block during a fight, deciding which way a block should be rotated in Tetris, or whether to brake before a corner in a racing game.
The second is value-based decision-making. This type of decision-making involves receiving stimuli from the world around you, checking your options, and picking the one that gives the largest reward and/or the least punishment.
It also involves looking at the probability of receiving the reward/punishment (risk), and the situation the decision needs to be made in (context). Some decisions may also need us to compare the short-term vs the long-term consequences of the decision. These processes allow the brain to weigh up the options and decide on the most appropriate course of action. These decisions occur frequently in video games, whether it’s deciding to spend or save your currency, to use resources to craft a type of armour, or whether to save perks or skill points. It can also involve deciding whether to use real-world cash to buy loot boxes, or weighing the short/long-term effects of a decision. This might be deciding which class to pick in an MMO, or whether to pick a certain story option/romantic partner in games like The Witcher 3, or the Mass Effect games).
The third and final type is social decision-making. Social decision-making generally tends to include things that affect people around you. This might be what the best thing is to say in a conversation, whether you should help someone else or share your resources with them, whether you should tell the truth or spare someone’s feelings, or whether you should trust someone or be suspicious of them. It’s a complex and varied type of decision-making that you’ll particularly use in adventure/action games. Examples of this include when you’re recruited by an NPC for a mission, or have to make a decision about the fate of various characters. Should you help the widow who wants you to look for her missing son, or should you walk on by? Naturally, this heavily involves empathy – i.e. your ability to represent the minds of others and understand how they feel. Similarly, social decision-making is also involved when you take part in cooperative (e.g. raids) or competitive games (e.g. versus games on Rocket League) – whether online or in person.
There’s often a degree of overlap between these three types of decisions. That mission to help a widow find her son becomes a lot more attractive if it has a large reward. In a cooperative game, you might get a larger reward if you’re an effective part of the team. Alternatively, you may see an opportunity for individual reward/glory that your team won’t benefit from. Many of the decisions we make involve a combination of perceptual, value-based and social decision-making.
WHAT HAPPENS IN THE BRAIN WHEN YOU MAKE DECISIONS?
Decision-making is the product of several different regions working together, and may involve regions from all four of the lobes. While each type of decision-making has its own unique regions, some of the regions involved do overlap.
STEP ONE: SENSORY PROCESSING
Broadly speaking, when we encounter a situation that requires a decision, the first stage is information collection via the senses. Once collected, information is sent to the sensory regions in the cortex (the top layer of the brain) for processing. This includes the occipital cortex (vision), auditory cortex (sound) and somatosensory cortex (taste, smell, touch)). The individual pieces of information go through their first stage of processing here, where they are translated to a form that the brain can understand. It’s then mixed with other pieces of sensory information and sent to more complex regions of the brain for further processing.
STEP TWO: DECISION FORMATION
At the next stage of processing, the combined sensory information is sent to the frontal and parietal cortices, where it’s analysed and used to make a decision. This happens through communication with regions below the cortex (sub-cortical structures) like the amygdala, hippocampus and basal ganglia. In this case, sub-cortical just means anything below the cortex.
The steps that occur here will depend on the type of decision-making that occurs. Social and value-based decisions usually involve more steps than perceptual decisions.
The information will be reviewed for things that need to be considered, e.g.
- How relevant is it to what you’re doing? – This is basically your brain deciding whether to ignore the information or not. If you hear cars parking outside your house, your brain is probably going to ignore it. This is because it’s not relevant to you playing a game, and doesn’t need your attention. However, if you see your health bar getting low, your brain will probably consider it relevant.
- What are the other options? – How many options are there? If you encounter enemies, you may have to decide on how to engage them. This could be avoiding the enemies, engaging them with stealth, or just full-on dashing into a fight. Your brain will review these options and weigh them up to see which is the best – based on things like reward/punishment, effort required, and likelihood of success.
- Is there a reward or punishment involved? – This allows your brain to weigh an option to see if it’s worth picking. If the reward is too low, or the punishment is too severe, your brain will probably decide that it’s not worth it. Punishments in gaming might take the form of loss of coin, loss of progress – or in a rogue-like game, having to start again from the beginning. Alternatively, rewards might include money, skill points, experience or new equipment/weapons for your character. A quest to kill a high-level monster might not be worth it if the reward is low, but if it’s higher, the risk-benefit scale makes that quest a bit more attractive.
- How much effort is needed? – If an action requires too much effort, your brain may decide that it’s not worth it. If there’s an awesome piece of armour in a dungeon, but it has twenty levels, take hours to complete and is intensely difficult, your brain may well just say fuck it. If you’re particularly determined, or just a glutton for punishment, you may well override the warning signals and push ahead anyway.
- How likely are certain outcomes to happen? – You’ll see this quite often in MMORPGs and action/adventure RPGs, where a particular resource is random number generated. This means that there’s a set probability that a specific material will appear/can be looted. This means that it won’t be there every time. If a particular resource has a low likelihood of appearing, you may just go and buy it from a shop. In games with a pickpocketing mechanic, there’s often a probability assigned to the likelihood of success – e.g. 10% chance of pickpocketing a gold ring. If the percentage is low, your brain will probably tell you not to bother.
- How much attention does it need? – This usually depends on how complex the decision is, and whether you’ve made a similar decision before. If it’s complicated and completely new, it’s going to need most of your attention. Encountering a new boss in Bloodborne will draw almost all your attention, whereas encountering a chest probably won’t.
- Does it affect other people? –There are entire circuits of the brain (and entire schools of philosophy) that deal with how we make decisions that affect other people (whether real or virtual). These usually deal with whether we should help another person/work with them – based on both our own sense of morality, and on the social rules that we live by.
Once all the processing has completed, your brain will weigh the options and decide on the best course of action.
STEP THREE: RESPONSE PLANNING
Once this step is complete, the brain has usually made a decision as to the best course of action. Often there is a threshold that needs to be met before an action will be triggered (e.g. for perceptual decision-making). This is typically a specific amount of sensory information that has to be collected before the brain will trigger a response.
The decision is then sent to the motor planning/action selection areas of the brain to plan your response.
These commands are then sent to your body via the brainstem so that you can make the response. This could be pressing keys on your keyboard, clicking the mouse, or pressing buttons on your controller to trigger a specific action.
WHAT HAPPENS WHEN THINGS GO WRONG?
Our bodies are quite error prone, and this increases with age as our cells stop replicating properly. The brain is no exception – brain function isn’t just affected by age, but by injury, developmental disorders and changes in chemical levels. When one part of the brain is affected, this can have a significant effect on how the whole brain functions. Disrupted activity in the frontal cortex can cause all sorts of problems – anxiety, impulsiveness, finding it hard to pay attention, difficulty understanding other people’s points of view and the tendency to make inappropriate decisions.
If the areas associated with perceptual decision-making are affected, this can cause you to misinterpret the world around you or make the wrong decisions – e.g. timing crossing the road incorrectly, bumping into things and finding it difficult to distinguish between green and red traffic lights. In gaming, this might mean you misread enemy attack cues, miss parry windows, or misalign objects in puzzle games. You might (like me) constantly fall off edges in Mario Kart races, because you thought the edge was further away. Alternatively, you might find it difficult to use guns in action games because you misjudge the aiming/shooting mechanics.
Disrupted value-based decision-making can cause you to make risky decisions with money or resources. This could be gambling, compulsive spending, or making decisions without considering the consequences. People with disrupted value-based decision-making pathways are more sensitive to addictive behaviours. They may be more vulnerable to gambling, drug addiction, and may have difficulty planning for the future. In gaming, this can take the form of constantly buying new games, buying loot boxes or other items that require real-world currency. It can take the form of impulsively spending resources that you may need for the future (money/resources/skill points), without considering the long-term consequences. It can also mean that you have difficulty stopping playing a game. You might play it for 10+ hrs a day and find it difficult to switch off.
Of course, playing a video game for 10+ hrs isn’t necessarily addictive behaviour (or else I may have a problem). It’s more the compulsive need to play, the inability to disengage, and withdrawing from friends and family.
Impaired social decision-making can be similarly problematic. Poor social decision-making might cause you to misread social cues when cooperating with other players. This might cause you to respond inappropriately or aggressively. Alternatively, you might behave selfishly in situations that require a team to work together, like raids or dungeons in MMOs, causing everyone to die or lose critical rewards. You might have issues trusting other players or NPCs, or avoid working with others to achieve a goal.
As you can see, decision-making is a critical part of our everyday lives – both in gaming and reality. The slightest disruption can have a massive impact on our behaviour and the way we interact with the world and the people around us.
We hope you enjoyed this article. This is part 1 of an ongoing series about neuroscience in gaming, so there’s much more to come.
Make sure you stick with Countr Cultur for the latest gaming news, reviews, and features from around the world. To receive updates on all CC posts, be sure to follow us on Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram.
Also, come and chat with us on Discord!