Scientists able to predict video game performance

Gamers who claim they are the best at strategy games may now be able to prove it beyond doubt as scientists have reported that they are now able to predict with great accuracy a person’s ability to play video games by simply analysing activity within a specific region of the brain.

Researchers at the University of Illinois used a new brain imaging technique that it able to predict “with unprecedented accuracy” the ability to perform complex tasks in a video game called Space Fortress.

The new approach, documented in journal PlosOne, involved analysing background brain activity in the basal ganglia, connected with procedural learning, coordinated movement and feelings of reward, using magnetic resonance imaging and a method known as multivoxel pattern analysis.

The researchers found that there were significant differences in the patterns of a specific type of MRI signal called T2*, located in the basal ganglia region.

It is these differences that enabled the scientists to predict between 55 and 68 percent of the variance (differences in performance) among the 34 people who later learned to play the game.

“We take a fresh look at MRI images that are recorded routinely to investigate brain function,” said Ohio State University psychology professor Dirk Berhardt-Walther, part of a team that designed and performed the computational analysis.

“By analysing these images in a new way, we find variations among participants in the patterns of brain activity in their basal ganglia.”

“Powerful statistical algorithms allow us to connect these patterns to individual learning success. Our method may be useful for predicting differences in abilities of individuals in other contexts as well,” he said.

“Testing this would be inexpensive because the method recycles MRI images that are recorded in many studies anyway.”

A group of non-gamer subjects spent 20 hours learning how a game developed at the University of Illinois named Space Fortress, which involves destroying a fortress without losing a ship, performing badly at first, tending to “start out with negative 2,000 points,” before significantly improving their scores by the end.

Interestingly the brain analysis was able to ascertain which of the subjects would fare better than others.

“We predict up to three times as much of the variance (in learning) as you would using performance measures,” Kramer said. The researchers tested their results against other measures and replicated the findings in new trials with different study subjects.

The researchers were analysing brain structures called caudate and putamen which are active when one is engaged in learning new motor skills, such as moving a joystick, and are also are important in tasks that require one to strategize and quickly shift one’s attention.

Another region called the nucleus accumbens is known to process emotions associated with reward or punishment.

It was subsequently found that activity in the putamen and caudate were able to predict future performance with much greater clarity than the nucleus accumbens.