Virtual Racing Fuels Aging Brains—5 Video Game Surprises

Video games can boost brainpower, advance science, and train tomorrow's leaders.

Scientists have identified a new weapon against age-related decline in the human brain, and it's not a drug—it's a high-speed video game called NeuroRacer. Described in a study released in the journal Nature this week, the game is just one of five ways that modern video games may surprise you.

1. Racing game recharges aging brains.

NeuroRacer was painstakingly designed to train cognitive functions that decline with age, such as short-term memory, attention, and the ability to deal with distractions, explained co-creator Adam Gazzaley, who studies cognitive neuroscience at the University of California, San Francisco.

Older adults (60 to 85 years) who played the multitasking game 12 hours a month not only outperformed their peers, they also bested untrained 20-year-olds. Their cognitive gains suggest that the aging brain may be more plastic than previously thought and could provide good news for future treatment via video games targeted to certain tasks.

Racing a virtual car demands constant attention, Gazzaley explained. But while driving, players also must make decisions about distracting signs that pop up on the roadside, pushing buttons to match certain signs and avoiding button pushes for others. "This creates interference between the two competing tasks within the game," he said.

As players improve, the game makes both tasks more challenging. Players must improve at managing them simultaneously, so a person can't simply focus on being an incredible driver but ignore the signs, or putter along slowly with a sharp eye out for distractions.

And some gains were to cognitive abilities generally and not just to performance within the game itself.

"Our cognitive testing showed a very nice and selective increase in working memory performance and sustained attention, neither of which were specifically challenged by the game," Gazzaley said.

"We were able to show that activity within the prefrontal cortex, a brain region which has previously been associated with cognitive control abilities and decision making, increased selectively in our multitasking training group," he explained. "And those who showed the biggest boost in this brain region also showed the most improvement in sustained attention tasks outside of the game."

While the results are exciting, Gazzaley cautioned that they don't suggest all video games carry wide-ranging benefits for the brain. Instead, he said, this game was carefully constructed over more than a year to target a population with a known defect.

"I hope this is a mobilizer to the field," he said, "to engage in a very careful approach to design and empirical validation of this type of interactive media as therapeutic."

2. Crowdsourcing games tap "citizen scientists."

Foldit, which debuted in 2008, is a groundbreaking game that taps the power of citizen scientists by asking players to assemble virtual chains of amino acids into three-dimensional proteins that perform most functions inside our cells.

Players, asked to "solve puzzles for science," compete against one another to arrange loops, lines, and squiggles into 3-D protein structures with ideal shapes in terms of lowest energy demands.

By toying with countless protein-building shapes to see which ones work best, their collective human intelligence, harnessed by the game play, can work out Mother Nature's most efficient protein structures better than scientists and their computer simulations. And knowing a protein's structure is key to both knowing its functions and potentially altering it—for example, by targeting it with drugs.

Players have had some incredible successes including, in 2011, finding the structure of an AIDS-related enzyme of the Mason-Pfizer monkey virus, which had baffled scientists for years.

A similar scientific crowdsourcing game, EteRNA, is driving research into the mysterious molecules at the heart of every cell, sometimes called the "dark matter of biology," by asking players to design sample shapes. RNA isn't completely understood, but it's known to play crucial roles in the basic processes of life, including cellular control and protein synthesis, and also have a hand in cancer and other diseases.

Gamers fold, tie, lattice, and otherwise arrange clickable, brightly colored pieces representing the four bases of RNA (adenine, guanine, uracil, and cytosine) into complex patterns that help scientists see how real RNA works. Players can review previous efforts, noting how synthesized RNA molecules behaved, then create their own designs to help build a better RNA model—knowing the best of them will actually be synthesized in the lab.

The game, a joint effort between scientists at Stanford University and Carnegie Mellon University (CMU), is creating a vast library of natural RNA information and may help nanoengineers create their own functional spin-offs for targeted purposes—like attacking a virus.

But the CMU website for the game also stresses a role beyond biochemical advances that hints at the future potential of similar research-based games. "EteRNA is a radical experiment in citizen involvement in cutting-edge laboratory science," it reads. "By playing the game and giving us feedback, you are helping us understand how to marshal large groups of people to solve complex problems on the Internet."

3. Games train leaders for battlefields and boardrooms.

The military has long used video games, including the free recruiting tool America's Army, which promises players a chance to "experience some of what the Army has to offer without leaving your home and have fun while doing it."

But the Army's newest video game seeks to take virtual reality combat to the full squad level. The Dismounted Soldier Training System (DSTS) exposes infantry to a wide range of simulated combat situations through a powerful system driven by Epic Games' Unreal Engine 3, which is also used in popular games like Borderlands 2 and XCOM: Enemy Unknown.

With the DSTS, an entire squad can suit up with networked virtual reality headsets, arm and leg sensors, and computerized weapons. Then they experience simulations of a wide range of virtual environments, such as the mountains of Afghanistan or an Iraqi building compound, where they interact with each other and enemies, civilians, and other realistic obstacles in a training environment.

No system can replicate the realities of combat or even live training, but this trainer built by Intelligent Decisions does offer some things reality can't—like the ability to quickly change through many different scenarios. And because the system digitally records each session from multiple viewpoints, training can be further boosted with extremely detailed after-action reports—Monday morning quarterbacking that helps soldiers learn from mistakes.

Civilians are also using video game training tools for their own adventures in capitalism—and enjoying handsome profits. Research like this study from the University of Colorado Denver Business School suggests that employees trained in video games perform better and retain more information than their peers.

A Federation of American Scientists report agreed, and cites the importance of video game training for the new American economy. "The success of complex video games demonstrates games can teach higher order thinking skills such as strategic thinking, interpretative analysis, problem solving, plan formulation and execution, and adaptation to rapid change," it reads. "These are the skills U.S. employers increasingly seek in workers and new workforce entrants."

4. Violent games don't mean violent gamers.

In the wake of school shootings and other high-profile violence, much has been made of possible links between video game violence and the real-world variety. But the question of how virtual violence impacts us remains controversial.

Several studies have linked video game violence and extended play to aggressive behavior among the young, problems at school, and even altered brain function in regions important for controlling emotion and aggressive behavior.

Cheryl Olson, however, isn't so sure. Olson and her husband, Lawrence Kutner, co-authored the book Grand Theft Childhood: The Surprising Truth About Violent Video Games, based on their extensive research at Massachusetts General Hospital and Harvard Medical School, where they founded the Center for Mental Health and Media.

"A lot of people don't realize that youth violence has gone down dramatically since the mid-1990s," she said. "We know that access to video games on all kinds of phones, consoles, and other devices is up across the board. And if you see these games, you know that the graphic realism is up. So you might think you'd see an increase in crime or delinquency related to the games, and we don't see any of that."

Olson's data did originally seem to link violent games with aggressive behavior like bullying and fighting, she said. But on further study, aggression turned out to be tied more closely to stressful life events and aggressive personalities among the players, she said.

Olson's most recent study, co-authored with Chris Ferguson of Stetson University and published in the Journal of Youth and Adolescence, targeted teens with depression or attention-deficit disorder and found no evidence for the theory that violent gaming increases antisocial, aggressive, or bullying behavior. In fact, the researchers claim, games like Mortal Kombat, Halo, and Grand Theft Auto could have a tiny calming effect on some teens with ADD.

"Chris Ferguson and I said let's take a look at all this data and see if we can find out if these people are a more vulnerable population that we may need to protect more against violent media, which would seem to make sense," Olson explained. "But there didn't seem to be a link at all, which, to be honest, surprised me a bit."

The findings don't rule out the possibility that some kids could be negatively affected by violent gaming, she said, noting that she hopes to soon study the role of such games among kids who see violence at home or in their everyday lives.

Bur research on violent killers, including a profiling study by the United States Secret Service, found that school shooters weren't more involved with violent games than others were.

"Violent video game playing isn't an aberration," Olson said. "It's something a typical sixth or eighth grader does on a regular basis—especially the boys, but many of the girls also. So it's hard to link a criminal behavior that is really unusual to a behavior like violent game playing that is so normal."

5. Who's playing the games next door?

Stats from the Entertainment Software Association (ESA) may put a face on the American gamer. Who are the people who spend more than $20 billion a year on video games and accessories?

They may be older than you expect. ESA reports that the average player is 30 years old, and the average purchaser of a video game is 35. The average player is almost as likely to be female as male, as women account for 45 percent of all U.S. video game players. Boys 17 and under, regarded by many as the stereotypical video gamers, account for only 19 percent of all players, while women over age 19 make up a much bigger 31 percent.

(As protagonists in the games themselves, however, women remain extremely underrepresented. When Microsoft unveiled the Xbox One at this summer's E3 event, for example, a baker's dozen of new games featured zero female leads.)

The games people play may also surprise. Violent or first-person-shooter games may generate the lion's share of attention, but they are only a small percentage of the games played and sold. Of the games rated in 2012, a total of 91 percent were rated "E" for everyone, "E10+" for age 10 and older, or "T" for teen.

And some of these youth-oriented games promote some quality family time, the ESA asserts. The association's statistics suggest that about one-third of parents report playing computer or video games with their children at least once a week.

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