Empathy and Conditioning Violence

Neuroscience and video games. What do they have to do with each other? Aside from whatever research went into crafting games like Psi-Ops and Psychonauts, it doesn't seem like the two subjects have much in common.

By Carrie Gouskos- posted Feb 3, 2006

ot so long ago, video games were considered to be a harmless distraction for young people. Now, they're being blamed for unhealthy addictions, acts of violence, and parental neglect. But is that really the whole story? With these ongoing reports, GameSpot will investigate how video games really affect us--how they affect our culture, how we perceive ourselves and other people, and how ongoing issues like game-related lawsuits and legislation affect us.

Neuroscience and video games. What do they have to do with each other? Aside from whatever research went into crafting games like Psi-Ops and Psychonauts, it doesn't seem like the two subjects have much in common. Sure, neuroscience is the study of the brain, and despite what everyone tells you, you do use your brain when you're playing video games. But what are the chances that the latest neuroscientific research is going to be of any interest to the game industry? Well, if you've been following the (relatively) recent work on mirror neurons, then you would realize that neuroscience is about to have a huge impact--if not on video games, then on the discussions we have about them--for a long time to come.

What Is a Mirror Neuron?

Motor functions, such as grasping a game controller or punching a friend in the shoulder after you lose a Tekken match, have always been understood as the result of a fairly straightforward process. There are cells in our brain that fire off signals to the muscles, and then we perform the appropriate actions. But 15 years ago, scientists studying monkeys noticed that the cells in the brain that fire when a monkey holds a peanut fire in the exact same way when the monkey simply sees someone holding a peanut. Called mirror neurons because they behave as if the monkey were watching itself in the mirror, these neurons allow the monkey to empathize, or automatically understand the experience of holding the peanut, without actually having to hold the peanut itself.

If we see ourselves as DOA4 characters, then we'd probably be feeling both a lot of pleasure and a lot of pain.

This discovery, which some scientists are lauding as the most significant neurological finding in recent history, explains why we so easily relate to the actions of others, even if their actions are not always obvious. We can tell if someone is watching a television by the way that person is facing it--even if we can't see or hear if the television is even on. It also means that we can experience the mental states associated with actions without ever having to perform those actions. In video games, in particular, it's like we're automatically empathizing with what is happening on the screen as if we were the video game characters ourselves. If you've ever had a particularly heart-palpitating race in Burnout, surely you can relate.

Empathizing With Video Games

Most people will say that they know the difference between reality and a video game. Mario isn't a real guy somewhere who eats a leaf, sprouts raccoon features, and then takes off into the sky. So how powerful could the impact of mirror neurons be, given that people seem to have a good grasp of the difference between reality and fiction?

"When you expose kids to…violence…through video games, then you put these kids at risk of expressing violence with their own acts."

-Dr. Marco Iacoboni, UCLA Dept. of Neuroscience

According to some experts, it's pretty powerful. The physical response of mirror neurons indicates that even the illusory effect of fictional violence is too important to ignore. Dr. Marco Iacoboni, a professor at UCLA's medical school, is a neuroscientist and neurologist studying the neuron mechanisms of social behavior, with a focus on mirror neurons, imitation, and empathy. He says, "The work that we're doing in mirror neurons, what it suggests is that we have in our brains some mechanism that may induce some form of immediate behavior, and so whenever you expose kids to any form of, for instance, violence, through media, through video games or through films, then you put these kids at risk of expressing violence with their own acts because they're going to imitate that."

Game sales go up. Crime statistics go...down? (From the FBI 01/05 to 06/05 crime report)

So why aren't more violent acts committed? There's no question that we are inundated with violence from every angle in the media, whether it's for news or entertainment. If people have automatic empathetic responses such that there's a danger they'll become violent, wouldn't we see more results of this? Hopefully, most everyone reading this right now is thinking the same thing: "I've been playing video games for ___ number of years, and even though I can tell you how many rounds are in a standard-issue Desert Eagle (thank you, Counter-Strike), I've never owned one, let alone planned to kill someone with it. Why haven't I turned to a life of violent crime?"

"The next decade is going to be a crucial one for video games. Are we going to go the way of comic books and graphic novels and never really take off?"

- Gonzalo Frasca, Center for Computer Game Research

This is where "super mirrors" come in and where the staging grounds for the debate about mirror neurons is probably going to remain for a long time to come. Super mirrors are essentially the grand pooh-bahs of the mirror neuron system; they govern the lower-level mirror neurons. What's more, super mirrors may work differently in different people, ostensibly explaining why one person is likely to mirror actions that he/she witnesses or experiences, and another wouldn't. In fact, despite the implications of the mirror neuron discovery, we can't really make any assumptions about how they affect behavioral patterns until we better understand these super mirrors. "The classical argument to protect free speech is that there's always a mental intermediation of the listener or the viewer. So that suggests that the listener or the viewer, even if you're exposed to a violent film and then commit some violent acts, it still was under his free will. He did that through his mental intermediation. While mirror neurons suggest that maybe this story may not be entirely correct. But what is the level of mental intermediation of super mirrors, that's something we don't know," says Iacoboni.

What This Means for Gaming

The work in mirror neurons surely has an impact on how video games are treated, and it's likely that even more will be unveiled as the research on super mirrors is developed. But in the meantime, how can we use what we know about mirror neurons to affect the way the game industry is right now? Gonzalo Frasca is a researcher at the Center for Computer Game Research at the IT University of Copenhagen and a game developer at Powerful Robot Games. His suggestion for finding the balance between freedom of speech and social responsibility when it pertains to video games involves a mixed approach that first and foremost encourages more involvement on the part of parents with what their children are doing. He suggests that those in the game industry and related journalistic fields should find ways to communicate and advise parents on how to purchase games for their children, in a language that they can understand.

Beware of the censors! This message was brought to you by Psychonauts.

Comparing World of Warcraft to Don Quixote, Frasca stated that video games are undergoing the same kind of ostracizing effect that all expressive mediums endure when they first emerge. And though certain religious texts and political manifestos are responsible for more human lives lost than Grand Theft Auto could possibly imagine, there's certainly no justification for banning books on the whole; rather, it's necessary to merely educate people about the contents within them.

That's not to say that Frasca absolves game creators of all responsibility. He states that one of the largest problems with video games, in the United States in particular, is that they're often inappropriately marketed toward children. This may have something to do with a larger-scale misinterpretation that video games are a medium inherently for kids. While books and movies have very distinct ways of presenting material that isn't meant for the younger set (books can use obfuscating words, and movies can be like Solaris), "nudity and violence are the only things that make a game adult," according to Frasca. Even the most confusing control schemes can be executed by the eager tyke, and let's face it, not many games have storylines that would be too complex for nonadults to understand (except Metal Gear, which is too confusing for anyone to understand). "The next decade is going to be a crucial one for video games. Are we going to go the way of comic books and graphic novels and never really take off?" Frasca asks. "That only can change if we start actually making games that can be recognized as something for grown-ups. And that's a very complex issue. It deals with economics, it deals with cultural issues."

So what does all this mean to gamers? It certainly seems like science is moving closer to finding out what kind of influence external stimuli have on our ever-angelic personalities, which could be bad news for those already fearing the fall of the censorship stamp. As our exposure to entertainment and advertising seems to widen daily, it will become increasingly important to understand how it all affects us--not only to protect ourselves from media, but also to protect media from ourselves.

Please stay tuned to GameSpot for future editions of How Do Video Games Affect Us?, and in the meantime, please join us for discussion in the feature story forum, linked below.

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