Want to be a better gamer? Size matters

A multi-institutional research team finds that the volume of three specific structures in the human brain can predict video gaming performance in men and women.

Elizabeth Armstrong Moore
Elizabeth Armstrong Moore is based in Portland, Oregon, and has written for Wired, The Christian Science Monitor, and public radio. Her semi-obscure hobbies include climbing, billiards, board games that take up a lot of space, and piano.
Elizabeth Armstrong Moore
3 min read
Big brains: A multi-institutional research team finds that the volume of three specific structures in the human brain can predict video gaming performance in men and women. Miika Niemala/Flickr

If you'd like to know whether you're a natural video gamer, just measure the volume of three structures in your brain, according to a new study conducted by several research institutions at the University of Illinois.

Research has already shown that expert gamers outperform novices across several measures of attention and perception, while other studies have found that training novices on video games for 20-plus hours rarely results in measurable cognitive benefits--a contradiction that suggests that brain structure itself, not training, could predict gaming abilities, according to the study.

"This is the first time that we've been able to take a real-world task like a video game and show that the size of specific brain regions is predictive of performance and learning rates on this video game," said Kirk Erickson, a professor of psychology at the University of Pittsburgh and first author on the study, which appears in the journal Cerebral Cortex. Erickson is joined by researchers from MIT, Florida State, and the University of Illinois.

Researchers focused on three structures: the caudate nucleus and the putamen in the dorsal striatum (both are involved in motor learning and cognitive flexibility, i.e. shifting quickly between tasks), and the nucleus accumbens in the ventral striatum (involved in processing emotions associated with reward or punishment).

Using high-res MRI to analyze the size of these brain regions in 39 adults age 18-28--10 male and 29 female--who spend less than three hours a week playing video games, researchers measured the volume of each player's brain structure compared with the volume of the brain as a whole.

The video game Space Fortress, developed at the University of Illinois, can be manipulated to test various aspects of cognition. Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute

Participants were trained on one of two versions of Space Fortress, which was developed at the University of Illinois. Players are supposed to destroy a fortress without losing their ship to one of several potential hazards.

Half of the participants were asked to focus on maximizing their overall score while paying attention to the various components of the game, and half were asked to shift priorities around, improving their skills in one area for a period of time while also maximizing their success at other tasks.

The latter approach, which has the sexy science name "variable priority training," encourages the kind of flexibility in decision-making that studies show is most likely to improve every-day real-life skills. (Doing business on your headset while parallel parking; keeping track of your keys while unloading groceries; performing your best in bed while remembering to set your alarm; and the like.)

Researchers found that players with a larger caudate nucleus and putamen did best on the variable priority training, while players who had a larger nucleus accumbens did better than their counterparts in the early stages of the training period, regardless of their training group. This was unsurprising, since the nucleus accumbens is part of the brain's reward center, and a person's motivation for excelling at a video game includes the pleasure that results from achieving a specific goal.

This sense of achievement is likely highest in the earliest stages of learning, Erickson said: "This study tells us a lot about how the brain works when it is trying to learn a complex task. We can use information about the brain to predict who is going to learn certain tasks at a more rapid rate."

These findings aren't only related to one's ability to play video games. The researchers suggest that their results could be useful in a larger educational context and also in understanding and training people with neurological disorders.

Admit it: you kind of want to measure your size, don't you? Soon there could be an app for that.