We've all got that friend – the friend that seems to finish every video game they get their hands on in half the time that you do, that never fails to complete a mission or runs out of health, who we know not to go up against in multiplayer because they’re just too irritatingly good.
Well, we can stop telling ourselves that they’re probably spending hours secretly learning all the tricks, or that they’re evil evil hackers. Sadly, they may not be. It might just be that they have the right kind of brain.
A new study to be published in online journal PLoS ONE, based on research carried out by folks from the Universities of Illinois and Ohio in the US, suggests that scanning various parts of the brain can allow us to predict “with unprecedented accuracy” just how good an individual will be at complex multi-part tasks - such as video games.
In the past, what researchers have done is scanned the brain, taught subjects a new set of skills, and then scanned the brain again, to see what changes in various people. Here, they’re actually looking at background activity – so it’s less about how well you do, but your aptitude, based on the way your brain works. University of Illinois psychology professor Art Kramer, one of the people involved in the study, states that aptitude gets measured all the time, but never “to this degree in a task that is so complex”.
The area of interest is the basal ganglia – a little group of structures at the base of the forebrain that are important for procedural learning, co-ordinating movements and – level up! – feelings of reward and achievement.
The chosen subjects – none of them anything more than casual gamers – were given a specially designed video game which requires them to try to destroy an opponents fortress while protecting their own from various threats. They got 20 hours – probably not all in one go – to play, and their scores were recorded. How well they did was closely related to the level of activity in the basal ganglia.
Which is all well and good, but what if you’re not one of the ganglially blessed? Don’t ragequit and stick your gaming rig on ebay just yet. Kramer is quick to point out that while there’s a link, your basal ganglia will in no way guarantee success or failure in gaming. The brain is a pretty complex bit of kit, with lots of parts that do similar and related things, and it works in some pretty damn mysterious ways – these guys are just poking around in one tiny corner.
In other words: we're all still awesome. Awwwww ...