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The Special Brains of Gamers

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This weekend 5 pro gamers netted a jackpot of over 11 million dollars – the biggest prize ever awarded in the history of eSports. They form the team known as ‘OG’, who, with some of the most stunning comebacks in eSports, fought their way through teams from around the world to become champions of a MOBA game called DOTA 2. The tournament, known simply as ‘The International’, had a collective prize pool surpassing 25 million dollars. The game is so popular, that even on the first day of the 5-day tournament, around 6 million people watched the action live. This begs the question, what makes the brains of gamers so special?

The New Lab Rats

As we covered in a previous blog, the rise of eSports is so dramatic that the concept of cybersports is now being taken as seriously as professional sports like football and basketball. More interestingly, Neuroscience is discovering that eSports gamers possess some superhuman mental abilities which could help unlock secrets of human performance, as well as understand how video gaming can actually change the brain. This is important because there are around 2.2 billion gamers on the planet. Here, we’ll glean some neuroscience insights into what makes a serious gamer tick.

Boosted Attention

It is known that playing video games can have some positive effects on attention, visual and motor skills. Research also suggests that gaming over time can change the brain regions responsible for attention and visuospatial skills, and make them more efficient. 

Based on evidence that expert players of action video games have increased attentional and sensorimotor functions, a study published in Nature Scientific Reports used brain scans to see how expert gamers’ minds are wired. 

The researchers examined the relationship between gaming experience and the plasticity of functional networks related to specific attentional and sensorimotor systems. They found that experts had enhanced connectivity and increased grey matter volume in these subregions, and that greater gaming experience correlated with much stronger connections along key neural pathways.

Other research out of the University of Utah, suggests that this kind of hyperconnectivity between attentional brain networks could essentially help gamers to think more efficiently.

The Need for Speed

It’s been found that physically, cyber athletes are not the fittest people around by any means. However, they do have mental sharpness and psychological traits comparable to elite athletes, and visual reactions close to the speeds of fighter jet pilots.

Speed, it seems, may hold the answer as to why pro gamers often retire in their early twenties. An analytical study of Starcraft 2 competitors crunched masses of data on decision-making and motor reaction times, looking into the age at which response times start to slow down. Somewhat shockingly, the data showed that the body’s cognitive-motor speed begins to decline at just 24 years old. 

Like many of the big competitive eSports games, Starcraft 2 depends massively on razor-sharp mental and physical reflexes. In a National Geographic documentary, it was found that one of the world’s best Starcraft 2 players maxed out at almost four times the active response rate as normal people, as measured on a standardized cognitive reaction test.

With this in mind, it could be that when players start to lose their super fast processing speeds, it may actually outweigh the benefits of greater experience. If so, this helps explain why many pro gamers wrap up their careers at an age when ordinary people are usually getting started.

Getting into the Zone

At the truly elite level, computed tomography (CT) scans show that pro gamers’ brains work differently than amateur gamers. Specifically, the frontal lobe and limbic sections become active, which are in charge of memory, analytic reasoning, and basic instinct. These stay passive in normal gamers.

This shows that a pro gamer’s brain needs to be not only fast but also intelligent. Even though top real-time strategy (RTS) players often reach 300 action responses per minute, it’s how their minds guide each of those actions that really counts. 

ESPN ran a special show on a world-class Starcraft 2 player from Korea known as Polt. His brain wave activity while playing complex battles revealed how he not only moved to new tasks quickly but also shifted his focus on extremely short timescales. This allows him to maintain attention over a ton of action going on at the same time. 

Perhaps the biggest surprise was that his mental state resembled that of top athletes in a flow state. This means he could get into the zone to quiet down his conscious thought to remain calm under pressure, and not get distracted. This video clip gives an overview.

Nature Versus Nurture

Neuroscience is discovering that elite gamers have some truly remarkable stuff going on between their ears. What’s not known is the degree to which the abilities are innate or acquired (nature versus nurture). On the one hand, there are billions of gamers, and it’s not uncommon for even casual gamers to play 30 hours or more per week. Yet only a handful can achieve the performance levels of eSports stars. On the other hand, lots of studies show that non-gamers can get some cognitive benefits, with even moderate amounts of action video gaming. 

What is clear though is that the type of game is a key factor. For example, if you want to improve memory, then 3D video games have been shown to have a clear edge over 2D games. It has also been seen with NeuroTracker that 3D is a key factor for getting the brain’s visual centers to work harder and that how well people can process dynamic stereo information varies from person to person. 

Testing Transfer

Some upcoming research the NeuroTracker team is looking forward to is a head-to-head study comparing the effects of NeuroTracker training to action video gaming. This will examine pre-post neuropsychological tests and qEEG scans of changes in brain wave activity. 

The aim of the study is to reveal any differences in the training effects of each approach. In particular, this will evaluate how effectively any training benefits can transfer to improved cognitive functions. This could be of interest to professional gamers, as it might be the case that doing things other than gaming, might actually provide greater benefits to their mental muscle.

If you found this blog interesting, check out our other eSports blogs.

What It Takes to Be a Professional eSports Athlete

The Unstoppable Rise of eSports

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The NeuroTracker Team