Multiplayer Brainscans

Damn those awesome guys at Ars Technica, they’ve gone and done an article that we’ve wanted to do for years: MRI scans of the gamer’s brain. The results suggest that three areas of the brain are more active when the subjects thought they were playing against a human, an effect which is more pronounced in men than in women.

The human brain appears to try to parse the intentions of others by engaging its own decision-making process; in short, it appears to model another person’s mind by seeing what it would do if it were in that other person’s skull. The three areas of the brain that the authors identify are involved, in part, in making executive decisions for that brain’s owner, in addition to evaluating other people’s executive decisions. So, the fact that they’re busier when a person thinks they’re playing another human could also be interpreted as them focusing harder on an identical decision making process.


  1. Ian says:

    “in short, it appears to model another person’s mind by seeing what it would do if it were in that other person’s skull.”

    Is this less awesome than it sounds?

  2. SlappyBag says:

    Now to learn to actually control other peoples minds… mwhaha

  3. Jim Rossignol says:

    That’s pretty standard cognitive science theory, I think. It’s how you anticipate what people we do, or say in conversation. The same is true for playing games.

  4. Sir Lantis says:

    Nice article.. reference ;)

    @Ian: Something it does every day when you are interacting with other people – putting expectations into the behaviour of other people.

  5. Heliocentric says:

    I can attest to this.

    When playing an rts there is no point me trying to guess the actions of a random number generator.

    But another person? They haven’t seen i have unit x which means i’ve teched up to building y which means i’m weak against z. But like i said, they don’t know so if i hold back unit x and let them capture that hill but offer as much low tech resistance as i can they will think the distribution of my forces is consistent… They have unit p? Perfect\fuck!

  6. Mike says:

    @Jim: Yeah. I think New Scientist ran something on this very subject not a few issues back, didn’t they? What I’d really love to see is a comparison of different genres being played singleplayer.

  7. Mr Pink says:

    A hallmark of intelligence is having the ability to predict what we expect to happen in the immediate future given what is happening now, so as humans we do this all the time. If you’re concious of this fact you will probably notice yourself doing it.

    I’d be interested in whether this effect also occurs when playing against convincing AI, even if you know that it is not a human. I would expect that it would…

  8. AbyssUK says:

    Shouldn’t these scientists you know be doing something useful? Gives the rest of us ‘scientists’ a bad name.

  9. Senethro says:

    AbyssUK: Unless your science is feeding Africa and preventing global warming then your science doesn’t meet my usefuness criteria!

  10. Ian says:

    I think I allowed my Friday morning brain interpret that as something more interesting than “guessing what they’ll do.”

  11. Joe Russell says:

    @ Senethro

    Looking at it from a purely practical point of view, proving global warming doesn’t exist would be far more useful than trying to prevent it.

    Then again, the same could be said for feeding Africa, so that argument kinda falls apart…

  12. Jim Rossignol says:

    @Ian, well it does have some large ramifications for what games do: are the simulations we run in our own heads more significant to us in multiplayer games than single? Are the decisions we make in games given more value, and so on.

  13. Gap Gen says:

    “in short, it appears to model another person’s mind by seeing what it would do if it were in that other person’s skull.”

    Yes, it appears the solution to good AI is to trick the player into providing it for the game, then sticking electrodes into their brain and sucking out all the good tactics.

  14. Gap Gen says:

    I think that all science is useful. After all, nearly all life-saving technologies started out as someone pissing around with something irrelevant to modern life. People a hundred years ago or so were ripping on Faraday for messing around with something as useless as electricity.

  15. Jazmeister says:

    Doesn’t that make male gamers quite sensitive, self aware chaps?

  16. Heliocentric says:

    Feeding africa is the reason africa needs feeding. A set of sustainable starving masses.

    Do your science, i have no tech tree for the future who knows what will save us from whatever faces us.

  17. Jazmeister says:

    “…when a person thinks they’re playing another human…”

    So is that a design protip? Pretend multiplayer, lag, etc?

    Sorry for double post and all that, chaps.

  18. Cpy says:

    Senethro: global warming prevention? This is only medialized fact not based on true evidence, because hold on… we don’t have enough data to confirm, around 1950 we had data that “confirmed” global cooling, but as we progress we get new estimations, so global warming is to this date bullsh*t.
    And about africa i have my own statement that i do not wish to discuss here.

  19. AbyssUK says:

    @Senethro one out of two isn’t bad.

    @Cpy Please don’t, doesn’t matter how you swing it preventing ‘global warming’ gasses getting into the atmosphere can only ever be a good thing anyway right ??

  20. Gap Gen says:

    Cpy: No, anthropogenic global warming is real. An atmospheric physicist told me yesterday at lunch. So kindly stick your medialisation up your bum.

    As for Africa, the problem is largely administrative. Zimbabwe is a basket case because of the evil of Robert Mugabe and the complicity of many of the nations surrounding it. There’s not a lot the West can do beyond seize assets and put people on a travel ban. Unless you want to revert to imperialism again, which isn’t wise (or indeed practical, given that our forces are already shafted with the wars we’re fighting now).

  21. The Sombrero Kid says:

    if you knew more about the specifics of the algorithm you were playing i bet you’d try and simulate it’s decision process too i find myself doing this with the games i make but not the ones i don’t which is one of the reasons i don’t really play my own games

  22. The Sombrero Kid says:

    your other comment is bang on, anyone remeber when europe decided to just give it’s food mountians to africa? the value of food dropped to 0 there was no money in growing african crops so no one done it the food mountains dried up leading to wide scale famine in africa.

  23. pepper says:

    I always played by thinking what my opponent would do, usually works out best because if the enemy doesnt apply this technique then you can easily trick him into a error.

    Global warming? How do we always know to derail a thread in a mere 10 posts? Or does that make us also very scocially something?

  24. aoanla says:

    @Cpy: erm. No. In the 1970s (not the 1950s) there were a small number of papers published that argued that there might be a cooling trend. These were “medialized”, to use your term, into a big OMG THE WORLD IS FREEZING frenzy. In fact, the scientific consensus at the time was that a Warming trend was much more likely, and that the cooling data was a short term wobble.

    Guess what – it turns out that the scientific consensus in the 1970s is pretty much in agreement (down to refinement) with the current one.

    (The issue is much like the MMR scare and other media scares – the media overreacts to a small number of badly-done papers which suggest DOOM, and then claims that science is unreliable when those papers, which disagreed with much better research, turn out to be wrong.)

  25. Senethro says:

    I’m sorry RPS, I didn’t mean to derail this comments. I was just irritated by someones implication that if some science isn’t a perspective-shifting breakthrough or with an immediate technological application, then it is bad.

    I also don’t understand how insight into information processing and decision making in the brain somehow doesn’t meet even fairly tight definitions of utility!

  26. Aubrey says:

    Mirror neurons firing by proxy. Pretty interesting.

  27. LukeE says:

    @Joe Russell: I think proving that Africa doesn’t exist might prove problematic :)

  28. Chalkster says:

    @LukeE It IS kind of big, isn’t it?

  29. Rei Onryou says:

    Tomorrow’s Daily Mail headline: Violent Video Game Player’s Brains are Same as Hitlers!!!

    These results are interesting and I can see what they’re saying. When I played Enemy Territory there was a point where I just made a breakthrough in my playstyle. I started predicting the opposition accurately, knowing where they’d appear and what they’d do. K/D shot up hugely. I transcended mere human existentialism!!!!

  30. manintheshack says:

    I never could figure out what on Earth my brain was doing when I played games. Thanks RPS! If only I could use it to my advantage…

    P.S. Scientist snobbery makes me giggle.

  31. Tei says:

    Computer brainscan:

    needInfantry = ( infantry < 100);
    needTanks = (tanks < 10);
    needHugueTank = (needTanks && money&gt, 1000);
    needSmall = (needTanks && !needHugeTank);

    if (needInfantry) {
    Build(“infantry”, &money);
    } else if (needSmall) {
    Build(“smalltank”, &money);
    } else if (needHugueTank){
    Build(“hugetank”, &money);
    } else {
    (rand()*100>50)? Build(“smalltank”, &money): Build(“infantry”, &money);

    toAttack = ( infantry > 200 && tanks > 20);

    if (toAttack) {
    foreach( tank as t) {
    foreach( infantry as inf) {
    foreach( bigtank as big){

    if (rand()*100 >99){


  32. Heliocentric says:

    Actually you are right i do do that in games where the ai is fairly transparent.

    Advance wars for example, in a fog of war game i’ll let them see a plane and hide my tanks. Like clockwork they’ll produce anti air assets. But the company of heroes is on crack and wants to rush we with motorbikes and engineers, even late into the game.

  33. Calabi says:

    This probably why I cant play against AIs in chess games and always end up losing.

  34. Gubbins says:

    Quite simply, this is why males play better (plus a whole bunch of other things that would cause tears before bedtime).

  35. Pantsman says:

    @aoanla: Source?

  36. aoanla says:

    For a start, you might look at the Wikipedia entry on “Global cooling” ;) I’m basing my particular comment in a discussion I had with a climatologist, though.

  37. Pantsman says:

    D’oh. Thanks!

  38. The Apologist says:

    This is interesting but as others have said, perhaps to be expected given that this is a pretty established idea about how our brains have evolved to work socially.

    What is interesting however, is that there has been speculation recently that in online interactions like social networking on Facebook we simply don’t treat our Friends as people – we don’t do the imaginative empathy thing and so may not feel the need to treat them in the same way.

    Jonah Lehrer blogs about it here: link to

    I had begun to think that this probably explains all the terrible behaviour in, for example, Xbox live. But if this turns out to be true, then they must just all be horrible teenagers being horrible to each other.

  39. SPLastic the Cynic says:

    The problem with AI is that no matter how convincing it is, you will always (whether concious or subconciously) pick up its routines over time. F.E.A.R. is a good example of this – the AI seems incredible when you first experience it, but eventually you know when they’re flanking you.

    Of course, a cynic might note that some humans seem to lack the ability to make use of this subconcious learning.

    Recognising that people adapt and pick up on what you do, it would be interesting to try to fake-out a player (I’ll use an FPS as an example) by following the same path for several lives, and then all of a sudden completely changing strategies.