Neuroscience in Gaming (Part 2): Reaction Time
We are constantly reacting to the world around us, whether we’re aware of it or not. Signals in our environment bombard us, sending us new sensory information from every direction. These signals are detected by specialised cells in our sense organs; the eyes, nose, mouth, ears and skin.
The speed at which we respond to these signals is known as our reaction time. Reaction time is an integral part of video gaming, regardless of genre. Whether you’re playing CS:GO, The Witcher 3 or Hollow Knight, your ability to react to information in the game environment will dictate how successful you are at navigating challenges or defeating enemies. This information typically takes the form of visual, auditory or tactile signals (i.e. things that can be seen, heard or felt), unlike the full range of sensory information you receive in day-to-day life.
Sensory signals in video games
Visual signals take many forms, and tend to vary by genre. They may be used to indicate things that can be collected, e.g. loot, weapons, or food. These are designed to catch your attention, and may take the form of a glow around the object in question. Alternatively, these objects may change colour, or text may appear above them, indicating that they can be picked up.
Similarly, visual signals may also be used in or at the start of a battle. They typically warn of an approaching enemy, often in the form of a bar above the enemy’s head. Other signals indicate an upcoming attack to dodge or parry, or perhaps an opening for you to attack.
Auditory signals function in a similar manner and provide important information about the game environment. They may alert you to important events, like an enemy becoming aware of your position, shots being fired in your direction, or the presence of useful resources. Alternatively, they can drive you insane – if you’ve ever searched for Nirnroot in Skyrim, you’ll be familiar with this pain. For those who haven’t, Nirnroot is a plant that produces a high-pitched chiming noise, which persists until you pick it. It’s all fun and games until you get trapped in an entire cavern of it – in the fucking dark.
More recently, with the current of consoles, we’ve also seen improvements to tactile signals used in games. This includes things like haptic feedback and adaptive triggers, which are a complete evolution of the rumble feature often used to notify the arrival of a big boss.
Why is reaction time important?
Where reaction time becomes important, however, is in situations with a limited window for response. Combat is the most frequent example of this, but many other games use timing windows for different purposes. Games like FIFA require you to respond quickly to signals to tackle, pass the ball, or take a shot on goal. Similarly, quick time events (QTEs) may be used in cut scenes, or dialog, to force you to make rapid decisions. The Telltale games and 2018 Spider-man game use QTEs to great effect, where failing to press a button within the given time window can have a drastic effect on the outcome of a boss battle, or story events.
Generally, in these scenarios, the quicker you’re able to respond to a given signal, the more likely you are to be successful within the game (although precision is another key factor). Fast reaction times are particularly critical for online competitive games such as CS:GO, League of Legends, and COD, as well as MMORPGs and other games that involve PvP. However, the majority of games with a combat element will require you to recognise and respond rapidly to cues in order to successfully defeat an enemy.
What’s happening behind the scenes?
But how does this work? How do our brains convert sensory information into responses?
Let’s say we’re playing The Witcher 3, and we’ve decided to annoy the guards in Novigrad. The label above the guard’s head suddenly switches from a benign grey to a bright red, and a health bar appears above their head. This change is detected by specialised sensory cells in your eyes, which convert the information to electrical signals. The information is then passed by nerve cells to a processing location known as the thalamus. Here, the information is filtered to remove irrelevant information, and is then sent to be identified. For visual information, this happens in the occipital cortex. This sits right at the back of the brain, and allows us to determine what it is that we’re seeing.
The final processing step happens in the frontal cortex; the command centre at the front of the brain. Here, all the information about the scenario is mixed together and combined with previous memories, as well as possible consequences. The frontal cortex makes a decision and sends a signal to the spinal cord. This contains instructions about how to move the muscles to produce a response. Usually the response involves pressing a button, so the spinal cord will send a signal to the muscles in the hands. Depending on your level and/or how self-destructive your are, the response to this scenario may be to stand and fight, to run away, or to load a previous save.
What affects reaction time?
As you can see, there’s a lot more happening behind the scenes than we’re aware of. This all happens extremely fast – usually within 0.5-1.5 seconds. However, our reactions vary significantly depending on a number of factors. These include age, tiredness, caffeine/alcohol consumption, distractions and task complexity, among others. Accordingly, problems with the areas of the brain involved in reaction time can also affect your reaction speed. These include sight and hearing impairments, damage to the spinal cord, neurological diseases such as Alzheimer’s or Parkinson’s disease, and cognitive disorders such as ADHD and autism, which affect the ability to process these signals.
As you can see, reaction time is a critical component of gaming across genres. Our ability to react to signals within the gaming environment frequently predicts our success – whether in overcoming challenges or defeating enemies. Interestingly, studies actually show that playing video games, particularly action games, can improve your reaction time (as well as your memory), and recently, we’ve seen specially developed video games approved for the treatment of disorders such as ADHD.
We hope you enjoyed this article. This is part 2 of an ongoing series about neuroscience in gaming, so there’s much more to come.
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