Friday, March 15, 2013

What Video Games Taught Me About Brains

I used to play World of Warcraft. It's a long story and all Justine Larbalestier's fault but by the end I was raiding seriously four times a week, and casually a couple of times, too. I quit when I'd got a world ranking in a fight, but was bored and offended by Blizzard's content in the Cataclysm expansion.

I killed this guy. A lot. Took his stuff, too.
For my current purposes it doesn't matter why I quit, only that I played the game seriously, and I was good at it. I used a mouse that had 8 or so buttons, and combined with Shift, Ctrl, and Alt keys could cast spells and run commands with a combination of my left hand on the keyboard and my right on the mouse.

Long before I quit, I was not thinking "I should cast this spell, so I should click that button with my right thumb while holding down Ctrl with my left pinky." Instead, I was just thinking "cast this spell," and the rest was taken care of by muscle memory.

The idea of muscle memory is familiar to most people: musicians drill scales, dancers learn sequences of moves, gymnasts learn floor routines, and video gamers learn to do what the game asks of them with their controllers. Whether it's casting spells or driving cars, at some point players go from thinking "press X" to thinking "accelerate" because muscle memory takes over.

Driving a car is a good example of this process, whether in the virtual or physical worlds. Drivers' responses become automatic, eventually. You notice this in new drivers when you stop crapping your pants every time they get behind the wheel.

Of course "muscle memory" is utter bollocks. Your muscles don't remember anything. That's not how they're put together, not how they work, and not what they do. It's not the nerves activating the muscles that remember, either. It's your brain that's doing the magic, and it's a bit more involved than just remembering how to do something.

It turns out that there are several layers of intention and execution between thought and act. At a high level, the mind is thinking "reach for that glass" and that impulse is translated into arm and hand movements, and thence into the appropriate muscle contractions. If reaching for glasses is something you do often enough, then the whole process gets optimized by the brain. You really notice this in driving when not only have you optimized the various actions of driving, but you have travelled the same route so often that the whole journey is an automatic sequence that you don't remember carrying out.

Who cares? I do. Because as well as remembering keyboard fingerings from my teenage years (I'm sure I could still dock in a Dodec at full speed), my brain learned how to be very good at WoW in my late 30s. In other words, far from the idea that our brains are done with developing in late adolescence, they still go on adapting and making physical changes to optimize our performance against the outside world far into adulthood. A leopard may not be able to change his spots, but a human can change his brain.

This matters to me because it means that recovery is not only possible, but inevitable given the right conditions. My job at the moment is finding those conditions and ruthlessly pursuing them. Games are part of the solution, too: they are a compelling medium in which the player frequently repeats physical action intently, has to get them right, and has to pay attention to the action and the result.

Sadly, this is where my frustration with the video game industry and the medical industry lie: for opposite sides of the same coin. Recovery games are shit as games. They're boring. Normal games miss the opportunity to make their players interact in ways that make them more physically active in good ways.

I'm still not going to touch WoW again with a 10' pole, though.