November 20

SfN Highlight: Neurogaming and Neuroethics

I started my SfN experience by inviting my sister, an artist trained in animation and game art, to a symposium that I thought both of us might enjoy: Neurogaming – What’s Neuroscience and Ethics Got to Do With It? This International Neuroethics Society Public Program combined our career interests in neuroscience and video games by calling on two neuroscientists and a game developer to discuss the relationship between research and the gaming world.

My favorite part was the range of analogies used between all the speakers to hammer down their main point – current “educational” video games really suck.

C. Shawn Green, Ph. D. from University of Wisconsin-Madison discussed many studies showing that playing action video games can improve different cognitive and visual skills [1]. Some exciting effects included improved reading in dyslexic patients [2], increased plasticity in patients with amblyopia (lazy-eye) [3], and better performance in surgeons [4]. In his last slides, Dr. Green used the analogy of “chocolate covered broccoli” to state that simply turning learning into a video game is not enough. Educational video games need to be more stimulating and more engaging in order to see the same cognitive enhancement resulting from playing games like Counter-Strike or Halo.

Game developer Jonathan Blow, creator of Braid, agreed with Dr. Green’s views of educational games. Blow used the analogy of the home gym versus a kung-fu class to describe typical education games compared to action video games. The home gym has machines to work out specific muscles to get you in shape, much like “educational” games make you practice using specific knowledge. But lifting a lever repeatedly or doing simple addition problems is not as exciting as attacking and defending with different kicks and punches or virtual shooting tactics. The point of Blow’s analogy is to emphasize the lack of reward resulting from playing educational games and how they should be improved with more complex and engaging game play.

Blow also used an analogy to describe the real role of neuroscience in the commercial world. He put up a slide showing faces of famous comedians. Can you guess how many of them looked at neuroscience or psychology studies in order to know best what makes people laugh? None. The same goes for many game developers. They don’t care what elements of an action video game results in the most cognitive enhancements. Good game developers can just feel what makes a video game fun and satisfying. They don’t need the science to tell them. The people who care about neuroscience are those making personalized advertisements (see Fig. A below) and mindless, money-grabbing mini-games in which players pay small fees to advance through the game. I believe the phrase “using science for evil” may have popped up during this part of the panel discussion.


Figure A: Sony’s US patent for skipping commercials [5].

Blow might make it sound like neuroscience and video games don’t mix well, but Dr. Green’s studies show lots of cognitive benefits to playing action video games. Ideally (future) game developers and designers (cough- my sister) would come to this symposium and walk away thinking, “Wow, I should really look into more neuroscience research to make my games more engaging and rewarding!” And the neuroscientists would think, “Maybe I should tell more people in the video game industry about my research (if it relates), but hide it from evil money-grabbing advertisers.”


1. Bavelier, D., Green, C. S., Pouget, A., & Schrater, P. (2012). Brain plasticity through the life span: Learning to learn and action video games. Annual review of neuroscience.

2. Franceschini, S., Gori, S., Ruffino, M., Viola, S., Molteni, M., & Facoetti, A. (2013). Action video games make dyslexic children read better. Current Biology.

3. Li, R. W., Ngo, C., Nguyen, J., & Levi, D. M. (2011). Video-game play induces plasticity in the visual system of adults with amblyopia. PLoS biology.

4. Rosser Jr, J. C., Lynch, P. J., Cuddihy, L., Gentile, D. A., Klonsky, J., & Merrell, R. (2007). The impact of video games on training surgeons in the 21st century. Archives of Surgery.

5. For a copy of the patent see or search