Gender differences in brain activations while playing video games (Hoeft et al., 2008)

gamepolitics.com had posted a study that was mentioned by a news radio about how men are more likely to be addicted to video games than women. Following the comments in gamepolitics.com, it seems that again we need someone to read the article directly in order to present all the information to prevent any misinformation. More details can be found in the news release from Stanford’s School of medicine. Neuroskeptic wrote a post on it, I highly recommend it.

Abstract

Little is known about the underlying neural processes of playing computer/video games, despite the high prevalence of its gaming behavior, especially in males. In a functional magnetic resonance imaging study contrasting a space-infringement game with a control task, males showed greater activation and functional connectivity compared to females in the mesocorticolimbic system. These findings may be attributable to higher motivational states in males, as well as gender differences in reward prediction, learning reward values and cognitive state during computer video games. These gender differences may help explain why males are more attracted to, and more likely to become “hooked” on video games than females.

Fumiko Hoeft, initially misspelled as Fumiko Hayft, and colleagues conducted a study to look into gender differences in brain activations while playing a simple video game.

Now in their short literature review, they described studies that have found that addiction to video games are more likely to occur among men than women. (Griffiths & Hunt, 1998). Along with other brain scan studies that show brain activations while playing video games. So they decided to look at specific areas of the brain, the mesocorticolimbic system, and see whether there are gender differences.

Method

Participants: 22 students (age: 19-23 years old), equal distribution of sex. Participants were screened for any clinical or psychological problems that may have influenced the results. So, they’re mentally and physical healthy and average. There were no gender differences in video game experience or computer experience.

Measure

fMRI scans were used to obtain the data. The game used is very simple, on the screen you have a wall in the middle and balls on one side of the wall and an empty space on the other side. The instructions given to participants is click on any balls on the screen. The underlying game mechanics is that any balls touching the wall will make it move making the empty space narrower. the empty space grows bigger if there aren’t any balls within a certain distance of the wall. Graphics are very simple, just black and white, and pixels like those games from the 70′s or something like that. That is the game task.IMO, if you use any commercially available games, the game variables like graphics, audio, narrative would confound and complicate the analysis of this study. In addition, I find the game to be very simple, easy to learn and IMO similar to Tetris. AND… this is a first in looking gender differences of brain activations in playing video games. So this is a first step study.They also designed the game to dissociate between goal-oriented activity and “low-level” motor performance. IMO, I can’t seem to see the difference, the authors did not elaborate on the difference between goals and performance. Isn’t it performance and goals deeply interrelated?

In any case, they defined low-level motor performance as the total number of balls clicked.

Goal achievement is defined as the average position of the wall.

Learning in this experiment is defined as the changes in the wall’s position from the beginning to the end of the experiment. So, if someone learned the implicit goal of the game then the participant would adopt the proper strategies to “win” the game. Hence, the changes of the wall’s position.

Procedure

The experimental procedure is done in 40 turns, one of these turns is either a 24-second game or control conditions. In between these game or control conditions is a resting turn, probable a 24-second resting period.

Results

Since it’s a brain scan study, I don’t know what to make sense of it. But here’s my best. Two-way repeated measures ANOVA were used to analyze the data. It was found there were no significant results for low-level performance. So there were no differences in the number of balls clicked. However, male participants gained more space than females and males were also faster learners than females.

Now looking at the brain activations between men and women. Brain scans from the game conditions vs. control conditions, showed that there were higher activations among men than women in the right nucleus accumbens, bilateral orbitofrontal cortex, and right amygdala. No higher activations among women were found. The authors also compared scans of control conditions vs. resting conditions in case that these differences may just be confounded, but found no differences at all. So it’s good.

In addition, they found higher function connectivity (don’t know what it means) among men between their left nucleus accumbens and bilateral orbitofrontal cortex, and the left nucleus accumbens and right amygdala.

These brain activations differences were shown to be correlated with men’s higher rate of goal achievement and learning than women.

Discussion

My head hurts with all the neurological terms. Basically, they found brain activations in brain regions that are associated to reward and addiction. Their results are also in line with previous studies.

In case some are wondering if the authors did a whole brain scan, well they did. Higher activations were found in several brain regions that are associated to autonomic arousal, behavioural changes in anticipation to reward or getting a reward (it’s probably not right to word it as such, but it’s as simple as I can think of) and “processing of spatially guided behavior”.

There are some interesting notes from the authors: it’s possible that the male participants were not consciously aware that the game had a goal or were not really focussed on “winning the game”. So it’s possible that an implicit goal-oriented activity can activate reward brain regions.  Furthermore, they speculate that other factors, such as aggressive behavior, may contribute to activations differences in the amygdala.

Some comments from gamepolitics.com about the experimental video game and how it cannot be generalized into other video games is well validated. Since some video games are very complex and what’s being used is very simple. But IMO, the authors seemed want to capture an essential component in video games and the reward system: goal-oriented activity. (see my comments with Nathaniel Edwards below) The authors would seem to agree when they called for more studies looking into finding out for more contributing factos, such as specific cognitive aspect of a video game, such as motivation, other genres of video games, ethnic differences or cultural differences of invididuals, IMO I would also include cultural differences of video games too, such as American vs. Japanese video games.

Hoeft, F., Watson, C. L., Kesler, S. R., Bettinger, K. E., & Reiss, A. L. (2008). Gender differences in the mesocorticolimbic system during computer game-play. Journal of Psychiatric Research, 42(4), 253-258.

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11 thoughts on “Gender differences in brain activations while playing video games (Hoeft et al., 2008)

  1. Thanks for finding the link to that Stanford press release, at least it showed what the game was. The other reports only mentioned “territory” and so the GamePolitics comments focused too much on speculation about which game they had used. There’s still a lot of dissatisfation with this study, though, based on using that one simple game to characterize all games and “addiction” to gaming.

  2. I understand that using one game to generalize to the entire spectrum of video games is stretching the limit. However, I’m running the assumption that authors are using that game to capture a fundamental component in video games and the reward system of the brain: goal-oriented activities.

    I believe that most games are goal-oriented and there are few games that are “sandboxes” or without goals, such as Simcity or The Sims. So, it’s not wrong at all to infer such conclusion.

  3. Interestingly, The Sims and games more like it are stereotypically considered more as games for girls.

    Another question comes up: Are all goal-oriented activities then more rewarding for males than females, making everything more addictive for them? Just playing devil’s advocate here, sort of.

  4. I think so too on the matter on The Sims, in retrospect, some might look at it as a social-oriented game or playing with dolls which is something that attracts girls. Of course, that’s due to society’s values on gaming. Actually, I should look for gender differences on gaming preferences.

    For your second question, IMO i’m not sure. Well i can derive examples like workoholics, or gambling. From an evolutionary point of view, I could imagine that an “addiction” in hunting provides a beneficial advantage which gives our ancestors the motivation and rewards to survive. I guess our evolutionary past hasn’t caught up with today’s technology which causes problems. But that’s my opinion.

  5. What about those games where you set goals for yourself? The game in question being “Half Life 2: Garry’s Mod”, which is essentially a physics sandbox where players are given a plethora of props from Source games and a set of tools and a “Physgun”. Players then can spawn the props and interact with them using the “Physgun” to move them arround, freeze them, etc… and the tools to weld, rope, nail, them together. There are so many other tools in the game that they are pretty much impractical to count, and new tools are being coded by the community surrounding the game every day, as are new game-modes and entities with which to interact with.

    My question for you is this, where would a game like this fall in the study? From my experiences of the game, a large portion of the community, if not most, seems to be comprised of male players aged anywhere from 6-40, although players in the lower extremes are very few. From what has been discussed, and despite the game being a “First person shooter” style of game, shouldn’t this game be more appealing to females? Im only curious about your oppinion.

  6. @ Altair

    An interesting question: Setting your own goals is dependent on your motives, either intrinsic (example :self-improvement) or extrinsic (external reward). So I guess, from this paper only, (not sure about the literature on the general issue of rewards, goals and addictions) that men are more inclined to set goals in a free-goal environment, learn implicit goals or finding goals. I could go on talking about how goals makes one feel that there’s a meaning in their lives… but i digress.

    Of course, there are other pleasures that doesn’t seem to have direct rewards or goals you get from Gary’s mod, such as creating your tools or modding. I guess it’s the pleasure of play

    To answer your second question about the appeal to girls. Due to culture, the first person shooter genre is usually ascribed to guys, therefore girls get limited exposure to FPS games, so I could (speculation) say that Gary’s mod is a bit hard to appeal to girls. Another consideration is how user-friendly is Gary’s mod? How much of the material in the mod appeals to girls? But your reasoning isn’t wrong, I can see the parallel of the “sandbox” element between Gary’s mod and The Sims-type games.

  7. @Altair: shouldn’t this game be more appealing to females?

    The biggest flaw in the stories surrounding this is that the only motivation attributed to the males in the study was “to acquire territory” which doesn’t seem to have come from the abstract, at any rate. Other goal-oriented motivators may have been present instead. For example, perhaps the goal was to make the middle line touch the right wall. Sure this goal has the same appearance as “territory acquisition” but is quite different.

    From the point of view of a “goal oriented” interpretation of the behaviour, it is simple to see that “Half Life 2: Garry’s Mod” is very much like any FPS: you get to build/shoot weapons and see how effective they are. This goes a long way to explaining the coders associated with the project’s expansion as well. The coders have a goal: make more and more effective tools. Now, as soon as one of those coders chooses to build a tool that will do something not already defined within the Half Life universe, you may have a point.

    I can hardly wait for the first Half Life: Garry’s Mod automatic diaper changer, for example.

  8. Well, none of the tools even exist in the Half Life universe in the first place, but i can see where that all comes into play. From my experience, i have only met one verified female who plays Garrys Mod. Although the game does tend to make a juvenile out of a fully grown adult (ragdoll posing can do that, just use your imagination on that one) Thank you all for your time though, and thank you especially (Dr./Mr.?) Tang for your feedback.

  9. Pingback: Violent content enhances video game performance (Bösche, 2009) « VG Researcher – Psychology

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