Video Games: Entertaining, Educational or Dangerous?

Video games are fun and addictive. I cannot argue against this. I have my own troubled past with them. When I was in college I wasted enormous amounts of time playing games. Later, this interest with games became a professional interest and I began graduate school with the hope of doing research on how computer games can be used for educational purposes. Ironically, the graduate school experience entirely transformed my perspective about video games. As I learned more about human cognition, I realized that video game playing might have some long-term unwanted effects.

When we play video games, especially first person shooters, we couple ourselves with the avatar in the game. The avatar runs, jumps, drives cars or shoots monsters, while we push buttons or move joysticks. In authentic human experiences the physical world provides us with a certain level of consistency and authenticity among multiple modalities the experiences are lived through. For example, walking is always experienced with legs and with certain muscles. There is no settings panel where you change the muscles you walk with from legs to hands. In addition cross-modality interactions are consistent, when something seems like an apple, smells like an apple, feels like an apple, it most likely tastes like an apple.

Linda Smith and Michael Gasser, Indiana University researchers, propose six lessons from babies as to how the embodied mind develops. One of these lessons is about how during multimodal physical experiences different modalities educate one another. Gerald Edelman in Neural Darwinism calls this reentry. Reentry, is the explicit interrelating of multiple simultaneous representations across multiple modalities. For example one’s experience with a cup of coffee is not only visual but also involves smell, physical properties of the cup, such as the texture and temperature, motor movements for moving the cup and drinking it, and finally the taste of it. All experiences related to a cup of coffee with different modalities are time locked. Multiple maps are formed between the physical properties of the cup of coffee during the experience: one map between physical properties and the visual system, a second map between physical properties and the haptic system and a third map between the smell and the olfactory system. At the same time reentrant maps among the visual, haptic and olfactory system are formed. These independent mappings of the experience become interrelated real time, thus educating one another. This allows the system to recognize higher-order regularities that transcend particular modalities. Through this mechanism when we hear someone ripping a paper when we are blindfolded, we can visualize what is actually happening. Studies conducted with monkeys actually show that after exposing the monkey to the sight and sound of ripping a paper multiple times, when they hear the ripping sound, there are activations in visual areas as if they are seeing such a scene/event.

First person shooter gameThe point I am trying to make here is that you do not have these types of multimodal experiences in a video game. There is only sight and sound, in addition to the motor movements for interacting with the controller and even with those three, you still don’t have a consistency among what you see, what you hear and how you control the character. Depending on the game, objects seem and sound differently. You also control your character with different combinations of key and joystick movements. Apart from the developmental problems coming with the lack of modalities in computer games, the lack of consistency among the involved modalities is unlike anything we experienced during evolution. This means that we do not have the mechanisms to cope with such inconsistency.

Michael Arbib and Nathan Mundhenk in the 2005 essay Schizophrenia and the Mirror System propose that schizophrenia is actually a deficiency of knowing the agency of an action. They ground their argument on mirror neuron research and Michael Arbib’s previous theory about the evolution of language. They argue that there is a common neural circuitry that we use both when we do something and when we watch other people doing it. This is how we understand the actions of other people. We put ourselves in their places. This system is proposed to be the basis for empathy, parity in communication and complex human languages. While the mirror system helps us simulate what others’ do, it at the same time allows us to imagine doing things, think of hypothetical situations and plan actions. But, how do I know it is not me jumping when I watch someone jump, if I simulate the jumping action in the motor circuitry that I use for jumping? Why don’t I think that it is me who is jumping?

Mirroring People

In his book Mirroring People, Marco Iacoboni proposes that there is a super mirror neuron system, which makes it possible for us to distinguish between what we do and what we observe or imagine. Arbib and Mundhenk argue that, this system for self-monitoring and attribution of agency, is deficient in schizophrenics. According to their theory “verbal hallucinations occur when an utterance progresses through verbal creation pathways and returns as a vocalization observed, only to be dismissed as external since no record of its being created has been.” The same applies for visual hallucinations.

Going back to my criticism about video games, I propose that playing games regularly for extended amounts of time may disrupt the self-monitoring and attribution of the agency mechanism. What you do in a first person shooter game is to couple the self with an avatar. The avatar becomes you. However it is still something you see from a computer screen. Unlike watching TV in a relatively more passive way, in the computer game you control the avatar. Sensorymotor systems for authentic movements are used to play, however the modalities are mixed up, for example you use your fingers on the controller to walk. Again, this is something we have never been faced with during our evolution.

What I wrote here are speculations, and maybe it is a stretch to relate video game Kidsplaying to schizophrenia. Nevertheless, it is a fact that our experience with video games is fairly new and nothing like what our ancestors experienced. I think we should not hurry to use video games in education until we know enough about how it affects the embodied mind, especially during the crucial developmental stages.

For the academically inclined, here are the references for the studies I mentioned :

Arbib, M. A., & Mundhenk, T. N. (2005). Schizophrenia and the mirror system: an essay. Neuropsychologia, 43(2), 268-280.
Edelman, G. M. (1987). Neural Darwinism: The theory of neuronal group selection: Basic Books New York.
Iacoboni, M. (2008). Mirroring People. New York, NY: Farrar, Straus and Giroux.
Smith, L., & Gasser, M. (2005). The Development of Embodied Cognition: Six Lessons from Babies. Artificial Life, 11(1-2), 13-29.

Firat Soylu is a PhD candidate pursuing a dual major degree in Instructional Systems Technology and Cognitive Science at Indiana University, Bloomington.