For Males, Video Game Rewards Are All in the Mind

FRIDAY Feb. 8, 2008 -- If you're a video game "widow," science might now be able to tell you why.

New research from Stanford scientists shows that the part of the brain associated with reward and addiction was more activated in males than in females when both genders played a game whose object was to acquire more territory.

In other words, the game was more rewarding for males, who were therefore more motivated to succeed.

The findings could have implications beyond the video screen and console, offering insights into what motivates human behavior.

"It's my sense that the results really do open a fascinating realm of future investigations," said Dr. Kathryn J. Kotrla, chairwoman of psychiatry and behavioral science at Texas A&M Health Science Center College of Medicine in Round Rock. "These investigations allow one to visualize literally the reward that different individuals experience."

"It would be fascinating either to determine what motivates women more than men or, within a specific gender, to look at the range of motivations and rewards for different variables," she added. "The study itself is looking at gaining territory but one could imagine studies that dealt with attachment or caring for others, so it really opens the door to a wide range of extremely interesting questions about human motivation."

According to background information in the study, which was recently published online in the Journal of Psychiatric Research, more than 230 million video and computer games were sold in 2005.

"Forty percent of Americans play video games, and men are two to three times more likely to feel addicted," said study author Dr. Fumiko Hoeft, senior research scientist at Stanford University School of Medicine. "It seems like an international phenomenon, but no one has looked at how the brain responds."

For the study, 22 Stanford undergraduates (half of them men and half women) were recruited to play a video game designed by the study authors. The game purposely dealt with territoriality, as men are known to be more territorial than women, Hoeft said.

Half the space on the screen "belonged" to the player; the other half showed balls coming toward the player's space. Clicking on the balls before they hit the dividing wall resulted in a space gain. But if the balls hit the wall, the player lost space.

Participants were not told that the object of the game was to gain more space but all quickly caught on.

Although both genders clicked on the same number of balls, men quickly acquired more space than women, apparently because men were better at identifying which balls (those closest to the wall) would give them the most space if clicked.

While playing the game, the participants were hooked up to functional MRI, which shows which parts of the brain are activated at different times. All participants showed activation in the mesocorticolimbic center of the brain, which is typically associated with reward and addiction. But the male brains showed much more activation in this area.

"Women and men showed activity in the reward circuitry, which overlaps with addiction circuitry," Hoeft explained. "Men activated those regions more than women, and the brain regions moved together more than women."

When participants played a video game that had no territorial aspect, there was no difference in men's and women's brain activation. "It's linked to the reward of more space," Hoeft said.

According to the study authors, most computer games that males like to play involve territory and aggression, explaining why men seem more likely to get hooked.

More information

The National Institute on Media and the Family has more on "taming the video game tiger."

Posted: February 2008


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