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Brains & Games

flappy birdScientists are trying to figure out what makes video-games addictive, and use the insights to build healthier or stronger brains, reports Nick Bolton in The New York Times (2/17/14). Their technique involves neuroimaging that enables them to look inside gamers’ heads as they play. The idea is to make the games easier or harder to play, depending on how the user performs, and in the process develop games that could "treat depression or attention deficit hyperactivity disorder."

"By scanning the brain during game play, we are hoping to discover the areas of your brain that are weak, and then guide a more powerful experience to help improve how your brain works," says Dr. Adam Gazzaley of UCSF. It’s also possible that the exercise could "rewire our brains to improve memory and cognitive function." In terms of what makes a game addictive — such as Flappy Bird, for example — people keep playing because "we’re trying to fix something," says game designer Ian Bogost.

"We’re saying to ourselves: ‘If we can just get this bird past these pipes, I’ll fix it," says Ian. "I’ll save that little bird and everything will be OK in the world." Some games capitalize on this "by offering us ways to buy ourselves out of seemingly intractable problems. In Candy Crush for example, you can buy more lives; in Dots, you can buy more time. But Dr. Gazzaley’s motive is simply to help people, and sees a day when doctors prescribe "an FDA-approved video game" as therapy.