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Gaming can inspire healthy behavior, study shows

Researchers out of Stanford and HopeLab find that Re-Mission, a video game that involves killing cancer cells, activates parts of the brain involved in motivation.

Red/orange/yellow shows increased activity in the brain of a participant playing Re-Mission, while blue shows decreased activity. Screenshot by Elizabeth Armstrong Moore/CNET

In the video game Re-Mission, players are tasked with piloting the microscopic robot Roxxi to blast away cancer cells as she navigates the bodies of fictional cancer patients.

A new study that took real-time functional MRI scans of 57 people randomly assigned to either play the game or watch it being played has found that those who played exhibited increased activity in the brain's positive motivation circuits, while those who merely observed exhibited no increase in activity.

"Identifying a direct connection between the stimulation of neural circuits and game play is a key step in unlocking the potential for game-based tools to inspire positive behavior and improve health," Brian Knutson, associate professor of psychology and neuroscience at Stanford University and co-author of an article on the new data, said in a news release yesterday.

Knutson tested the effects of playing Re-Mission with researchers at HopeLab, a nonprofit foundation that aims to develop products that positively affect the health behaviors of those with chronic illnesses. Their findings appear this week in the journal PLoS ONE.

The group's study is built on previous research indicating that the activation of these reward circuits is directly associated with a boost in adherence to chemotherapy and antibiotic treatments.

In this study, fMRI scans specifically showed that circuits implicated in reward (caudate, putamen, and nucleus accumbens) were active when participants played Re-Mission, but not when they passively observed or were resting. The researchers conclude that these mesolimbic neural circuits are activated by actual game play, not the sensory stimulation that can occur when, say, watching TV.

Co-author Steve Cole, HopeLab's vice president of research and development and a professor of medicine at the University of California at Los Angeles, says HopeLab is applying these findings to work on a new generation of Re-Mission video games for young cancer patients.

The current Re-Mission game is free (donations optional) but only available for Windows in CD or DVD format.

Watch a video snippet below: