The Psychology of Entertainment: Will Video Games Become Too Real for Us to Handle?

Man_Playing_A_Video_Game_1575481-310x416In yesterday’s post, I explored our psychological attraction to violent action thrillers. Today, let’s go one step further. What is the attraction of violent video games? And how might this attraction deepen and even become pathologically dangerous as the technology behind the games improves? It’s a question we’re speeding towards, so we should stop to consider it.

In TV and film, violent action triggers a chemical reaction in the brain that we find stimulating and pleasing. As cortisol and dopamine get released, we experience a natural high. Strong evidence points to a connection between sensation seeking (triggering the high) and addictive tendencies.

The Veil of Non Reality

There is a “veil of non-reality” that moderates this reaction however. The high we get from violent entertainment comes from the limbic structures of the brain, triggered by the amygdala and other sub-cortical neural modules. This is the primal part of the brain that ensures survival in threatening situations, which means that responses are fast but not deliberate. The higher, cortical parts of the brain ride overtop of these responses like a governor, toning down the responses and modulating the overactive danger response mechanisms. It our brains didn’t do this, we’d quickly burn ourselves out. Cortisol is a great stimulant when it’s needed, but a steady diet of it turns us into a quivering pile of anxiety-ridden stress.

When we watch entertainment, this modulating part of the brain quickly realizes that what we’re watching isn’t real and puts its foot on the brake of the brain’s natural desire to pump out Cortisol, dopamine and other neuro-chemicals. It’s the “voice of reason” that spoils the fun of the limbic brain. Despite the fact that there’s car’s exploding left and right and people are dropping like flies, the fact that we’re watching all this on a 2 dimensional screen helps us keep everything in perspective, preventing our brain from running away with itself. This is the veil of “non-reality” that keeps us from be fooled that this is all real.

The Imagined Reality of Entertainment

But let’s stop for a moment and think about how we’re consuming entertainment. In the past decade, screens have got bigger and bigger. It’s no coincidence that we get a bigger high from watching violence on the big screen than from watching it on a 20 inch home TV. The “veil of non-reality” starts to slip a little bit. It seems more real to us. Also, we feed off the responses of others in the theater. We are social animals and this is especially true in threatening situations, even if they are simulations in the name of entertainment. We pick up our social cues from the herd.

It’s not just the size of the screen that’s changing, however. Technology is continually trying to make our entertainment experiences more real. Recent advances in 3D technology have not only made James Cameron even wealthier, they also deliver a stronger sensory jolt. Watching Avatar in 3D is a sensory explosion. The veil of “non-reality” slips a little further.

But improvements in graphic technology can only go so far in fooling the brain. Much as our eyes might be deceived, we’re still sitting passively in a chair. Our interpretation of the world not only relies on input from the senses, it also relies on our own sense of “body” – Antonio Damasio’s somatic markers.

The Satisfaction of Control

This is where video games are quickly approaching a potential crisis point in sensory overload. Even the best Hollywood thriller requires us to sit passively and consume the experience. We have no control over plot, dialogue or the character actions. We can only engage in the experience to a certain level. In fact, much of the appeal of a Hollywood thriller comes from this gap between what’s happening on the screen and what’s happening in our own minds. We can imagine possible outcomes or perhaps the director gives us knowledge the protagonist doesn’t have. We experience suspense as we see if the protagonist takes the same actions we would. We silently scream “Get out of the house!” to the teenage babysitter when we know the psychopathic killer is upstairs.

But video games erase this limitation. With a video game, we’re suddenly in control. Control is a powerfully seductive condition for humans. We naturally try to control as many elements of our environment as possible. And when we can exert control over something, we’re rewarded by our brains and a natural hit of dopamine. That’s why completing a puzzle or solving a riddle is so inherently satisfying. These are tiny exertions of control. In a video game, we are the authors of the script. It is we who decide how we react to dangerous situations. Suddenly we are not a passive audience. we are the actors. This is cognitive engagement at a whole different level. Suddenly the appeal of sensory stimulation is combined with the rewards we get from exercising control over novel situations. That’s a powerful one-two punch for our brains. And the veil of “non-reality” slips a little further.

Virtual Reality

The negative impacts of video games have been studied, but again, like TV, studies have been largely centred around one question: does the playing of video games lead to increased aggression and violence in children? And, like TV, the answer seems to be a qualified yes. For those already prone to violence, the playing of video games seems to reinforce these attitudes. But it’s also been argued that the playing of video games provides a cathartic release for violent tendencies.

Less research has been conducted on the cognitive impact of video games, and it’s here where the bigger problem might lie. A few studies have shown the playing of video games could be addictive. A Japanese study found that excessive video game playing during adolescence seems to alter the way brains develop, impairing the ability to focus attention for long periods of time. In fact, a number of studies have shown links between exposure to excessive sensory stimulation through electronic media and the incidence of ADHD and other attention deficit disorders. It’s this longer term altering of how our brains work that may represent the bigger danger in video games.

Video games combined violent scenarios, which we know to provide sensory jolts to the brain, with the seduction of control. What has limited the addictive appeal of video games to this point are two things: how realistic the scenarios are perceived to be and the way we interact with the games. And, in both these areas, technology is moving forward very quickly.

Video game graphics have come a long way, but they still lack the photo realism of a typical Hollywood movie. However, the distance between the two is lessening every day. How far away are we from a video game experience that matches the realism of Hollywood? Huge advances in computer graphics and sheer processing power are bringing the two closer and closer together. The day is not far away where our experience in a video game will feel like we’ve been dropped in the middle of a movie. And, with 3D and virtual reality technology, even the physical separation of a screen will soon disappear. The imaginary world will surround us in a highly realistic way. What will that do for the “veil of non-reality?”

The other area where video games have improved dramatically is in the way we control them. The control pad with various triggers and buttons was a artificial way to interact with the video game world. A spin-jump-kick combination was triggered by pushing down a few buttons while we sat in a chair. This helped our brain maintain it’s distance from the imagined reality. But Nintendo’s Wii changed how we interact with video games. Sophisticated sensors now translate our own body motions into corresponding digital commands for the game. Even our bodies are fooled into believing we’re actually playing golf or participating in a boxing match. Interestingly, Nintendo made the choice to make the graphics on the Wii less realistic, perhaps trying to maintain a “veil of non-reality.”

The Wii opens the door to a much more realistic way of controlling video games. Now our own body movements control the virtual character. Suddenly, our body is providing reinforcing feedback to our brain that this might just be real. When you combine this with photo-realistic visual input and audio input, one could forgive our brains for not being able to determine what is real and what isn’t.

Entertainment Overload?

If technology continues down the path it’s own, the virtual reality of a video game may be indistinguishable from the true reality of our lives. If the “veil of non-reality” permanently slips, we have a huge potential problem: our lives pale in comparison to the sensory possibilities of a virtual world. That’s why our brains may not be equipped to handle the overload. We may get addicted to sensation as the brain is fooled into giving us stronger and stronger hits of cortisol, dopamine, adrenaline and other natural narcotics. When the “veil of non-reality” slips away forever, our brains may not be equipped to handle the new virtual reality.

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