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This week in video games

If life can imitate art, can life imitate video games? Some scientists will tell you yes.

If life can imitate art, can life imitate video games? Some scientists will tell you yes.

Violent video games appear to put the human brain in a mood to fight, according to a new study from Michigan State University. In the study, 13 males played the first-person shooter game "Tactical Ops: Assault on Terror" while in a functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) system, which measures brain activity. The brain scans of 11 of the subjects exhibited "large observed effects" characteristic of aggressive thoughts. The researchers said the pattern of brain activity can be considered to be caused by virtual violence.

"There is a causal link between playing the first-person shooting game in our experiment and brain-activity patterns that are considered characteristic for aggressive cognitions and effects," said Rene Weber, an assistant professor of communication and telecommunication at MSU. "There is a neurological link, and there is a short-term causal relationship."

However, online video games may also hold clues to deadly viruses. A plague that hit the virtual game "World of Warcraft" in late September quickly propagated, causing the temporary death of innumerable players and significant damage to large numbers of others.

But to some scientists and educators, virtual-reality outbreaks could prove a valuable tool for studying the spread of infectious diseases and the public response to them. The correlation between online and real-world behavior in the face of epidemics, they say, takes on heightened significance in the face of public-health threats like a potential avian flu pandemic.

Virtual online worlds--where players' economic and social behavior is often a microcosm of their off-line behavior--are a perfect place to compare real-world infectious diseases with those comprised only of digital ones and zeros. Among other things, explained Yasmin Kafai, an associate professor at UCLA's Graduate School of Education and Information Studies, virtual environments can allow researchers to see how social ostracization occurs as a disease spreads and people try to avoid going near the infected.

Speaking of realism in video games, CNET News.com's Daniel Terdiman joined a small crowd of journalists invited to try their hands at 12 titles expected to be ready in time for the Xbox 360 launch next month. He calls Microsoft's next-generation video game console an "impressive machine."

The invitees were immediately immersed in a magical world of stunning graphics that brought even the blades of grass to life. The level of detail was monumental. "The attention to detail on "Project Gotham Racing 3" was indeed noteworthy: spectators who reacted individually when my car got too close, glare on the window, even a realistic reflection in the side-view mirror," he writes in his reporter's notebook. "And the driving, I have to admit, was pure fun."