Gone are the days of video games merely being an idle pastime for the average couch potato, when all that mattered was pushing buttons for the right moves and getting to the next level. With their ability to embed in the brains of longtime gamers and change human behavior, video games have evolved to uses taking them far beyond the sofa. Today, it seems something of a misnomer to even refer to them as “video games,” as their applications have practical use in everything from art, education, and skills training, to neuroscience and banking. They even play a role in developing modern prosthetics. Things that took human intelligence to develop are now just as reliant on artificial intelligence.
“The brain evolves to see the world in a way that is useful to it,” says Beau Lotto, the neurobiologist and artist whose TED talk has been seen by 3.4 million people. The brain is also easily duped as propagandists, advertisers, and video game developers know. Now an unlikely amalgam of neuroscientists, computer geeks, video gamers, and engineers is stretching the limits of our imagination. Music can be made from color. You can teach your ears to “see.” Prosthetic limbs can feel real. When we play first person video games it becomes easy to take on the identity of the avatar, our game character.
It is this brain trickery that will soon allow us to use video to project ourselves as an avatar to meet in a faraway place. “In gaming you project yourself into the character. First person perspective creates games where your brain believes it is in the game,” says Olaf Blanke, assistant professor of cognitive neuroscience at the Brain-Mind Institute of Lausanne, Switzerland. “The brain puts itself into the avatar’s body. The right temporoparietal part of your brain controls. You don’t know where the subject is localized. And so the brain can deceive itself, it can feel or experience that which isn’t real, essential for video gaming and neuroprosthetics.” It is a small step from there to immerse yourself into the world of the game entirely, a world where the game codes for the world around you.
Blanke is involved in cognitive neuroprosthetics, which employ the brain’s way of tricking itself to incarnate or animate artificial limbs and avatars or robots. Many amputees report still feeling sensations as though they still have the use of their lost arms and legs. In instances of spinal damage, such a massive disconnect occurs — you have a body but don’t feel it. Blanke proposes to give back feeling in the body and remove pain: “Cognitive neuroprosthetics projects your self-awareness to limbs that are not yours. Prosthetic hands do not feel yet, but cognitive neuroprosthetics is moving towards changing that.” Already, the technology has advanced considerably thanks to virtual reality. Marc Fucarile, who lost a leg in the Boston Marathon bombings, has said that his new prosthetic works so well that he considered having his other leg amputated.
It is through “sensory substitution,” using sound instead of sight, that Lotto and his team create prosthetics for the visually impaired, to make the world navigable like never before. They are able to embed a virtual map in the user’s brain that expands based on the world around them. Colors can even be made from sounds using neuro-based technology, coding colors with musical notes.
One of the top 10 world-changing innovations in 2014 according to the Massachusetts Institute of Technology is the “neuromorphic chip” — wired much more like a human brain than a computer chip, and guaranteed to further blur the line between machines and biological systems, as they scan and process images much like we do. Qualcomm’s new robots, equipped with these chips, process sensory data using cues of sight and sound from their camera lenses and audio feeds, and respond in ways that are not explicitly programmed. Perhaps one day, the chips could anticipate user needs.
But the innovation that excited Facebook so much, that the company bought it for $2 billion in March 2014, was the Oculus Rift, which gives gamers an atmospheric experience of living within a manufactured world. Palmer Luckey, who has no formal engineering education, built the prototype when he was 16. While video games are the target market for the Rift, the technology has implications for architecture design, emergency-response training, and even therapy for phobias.
It would seem that the world of video games belongs to the young. The first video game “Spacewar!” was invented by 23-year-old Steve Russell in 1962. The U.S. military quickly became interested in gaming technology, using a game called “MechWarrior” for staff officer training. First-person shooter games like “Doom” are still an essential part of training in the naval and armed forces. Today, Games2Train has developed employee-training games for American Express, Bank of America, IBM, J.P. Morgan Chase, and Nokia.
The way video games increase focus and concentration — and also become addictive — interests financial institutions. A plethora of science shows that people who regularly play video games have 10 to 20 percent better perceptual and cognitive ability than the norm, and better visual attention skills than non-gamers. Organizations as diverse as the World Bank and Disney have even created games around banking and finance for those in developing nations and schools. “The Great Piggy Bank Adventure” from Disney to become “a finance smarty pants” was as entrancing for adults as it was for children. It teaches players lessons like “Setting Financial Goals,” “Saving and Spending Wisely,” and “Asset Allocation.”
Some banks are experimenting with using video games to school clients in finance. For example, you can enhance your chances of getting a bank loan if you perform special moves, complete levels — like financial training — and rack up points, your credit profile can improve and with it your cost of borrowing. European small-business lender Amikod and U.S. payday lender LendUp are paving the way. LendUp, which counts Google among its backers, runs a “LendUp Ladder” that rewards high-scorers with better loan terms.
The average gamer is 31 years old and has been playing for 13 years, according to the Entertainment Software Association. Most games are sold to people over the age of 35. 48 percent of regular gamers are women. 44 percent play on their smartphone and 33 percent on a wireless device. By 2013, Americans spent $21.53 billion on video games, hardware and accessories. Approximately 59 percent of Americans, it is estimated, spend at least 10 hours a week on gaming.
But gaming has its downside, and it’s a very serious downside. High military investment in gaming research has seen a tendency toward violent first person shooter games. Studies like those conducted by psychologists from Iowa State University’s Center for the Study of Violence found that fast-paced, violent games — like “Halo” and “Unreal Tournament” — reduce the player’s ability to curb aggressive behavior, even if the same games fine-tune the player’s ability to make quick decisions. Research shows that in many cases of school shootings, the perpetrators, including the Columbine killers, have had addictions to violent video games, like “Halo,” ‘Grand Theft Auto,” “Counter-Strike,” and “Doom.” Elliot Rodger, who killed six people in 2014 before killing himself, was addicted to “World of Warcraft,” one of the most lucrative video games of all, with more than seven million subscribers, more users than “Call of Duty: Black Ops,” a favorite of the Newtown school shooter, Adam Lanza.
Shortly before he went on a killing spree, Rodger wrote: “I hid myself away in the online ‘World of Warcraft.’ It was the only place I felt secure.” To some disturbed individuals, people become less real than gaming figures, they become “other,” those for whom there is no compassion. “Murder is against natural human inclinations, but violent and first person shooter video games destroy those inhibitions,” says Lt. Col. Dave Grossman, a psychiatrist who studies the effects of violent games.
However, violent crimes have dropped across the developed world over the last four decades. Police argue that crime is down because officers now target criminals in a smarter way — concentrating on the 5 to 10 percent of people who commit over half of all offenses. In New York City, there were 417 murders in 2012, down 2,262 in 1992. Some say the reason is because jail populations in the U.S. and Great Britain have doubled between 1993 and 2012. Video games, however, keep kids off the street. They allow a safer way to express anger. Additionally, just 0.4 percent of American males between the ages of 10 and 24 get arrested for violent crimes now, half the rate in 1995, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
And from video games came drones. The Predator is considered the best drone in the world, developed by aeronautics engineer Abraham Karem, out of his California garage. Karem’s prototype, the Albatross, was used by the CIA to gather intelligence during the Bosnian War. NATO attached bombs to its wings for the 1999 Kosovo air strikes, transforming the Albatross from a spy plane into a killer drone.
Today, law enforcement officers use drones. So do farmers, filmmakers, and if Jeff Bezos of Amazon has his way, they’ll be delivering parcels at your doorstep.
Video game technology certainly has significant potential for good, but we can’t celebrate without being aware of the harm it has also caused. It’s an amazing new world, one that arouses excitement, but also caution. It’s all too new for us to know precisely what it does to the brain.