Have scientists discovered the biological basis for being awesome at videogames?

Have you ever had a friend who is just good at every game she or she lays his or her hands on? So have we. Aren’t they annoying? Anyhow, there may be a biological basis for why they are just so damn good.

Scientists at the University of Illinois measured electrical activity in the brains of test subjects while they played a custom-built computer game.

The subjects whose brain waves oscillated most powerfully in the alpha spectrum (about 10 times per second, or 10 hertz) when measured at the front of the head tended to learn at a faster rate than those whose brain waves oscillated with less power, the researchers found.

In other words, stronger alpha wave oscillation predicted strongly how good the subjects would get at the game. So it really that simple? We emailed Kyle Mathewson, a postdoctoral researcher on the project, to find out.

Do you think this correlation, between improvement in play and more powerful alpha wave oscillation, would extend to commercial videogames?

The video game we used, Space Fortress, was design to simulate a complex, multifaceted game-play environment. To maximize their score, players must balance many factors, such as steering, shooting, dodging, responding to threats, selecting rewards, and remembering task components. Many more modern commercial games also combine these features into their more complex environments and controls. Furthermore, we found that the level of alpha waves during all parts of initial gameplay was associated with improvements, not just certain features of the Space Fortress game.

We feel that the alpha power relationships represent a general mechanism not specific to this game, or its specific features.

Do you think that this would apply more to certain kinds of videogames than others?

I would say that video games that emphasize a specific and focused cognitive capacity such as reaction time or accuracy at target shooting would tap into more specific brain mechanisms, and not the task-general system we believe alpha oscillations are measuring. These more specific tasks would depend more on the architecture and function of the specific network needed for the task.

We think this effect of alpha waves represents a more general brain function of dynamic coordination between different tasks and cognitive functions.

Wouldn’t this trend hold true for ALL kinds of learning? What makes games different?

This also remains an open question. Specifically, learning that is more dynamic and that coordinates multiple different cognitive functions will likely show this relationship with alpha waves at the start of learning more often than learning a specific, contained cognitive task that doesn’t require such coordination.

Games provide an  optimal outlet to conduct such research given the ability to control the millisecond-level timing of what is presented on the monitor and from the speakers that is possible in the real world. At the same time, games are exciting, motivating, and fun, and provide a more realistic scenario for learning than traditional laboratory experimental tasks that are normally quite different and distant from the real cognitive functions they intend to measure. 

So there you have it. Alpha wave oscillation may explain your friend who is really good at a game that requires many different kinds of cognitive activities (say, Zelda, which combines quick-trigger action with puzzle solving and navigation) but may not explain your friend who is just really way too good at Halo.