Neuroscientists could soon have you playing video games to prevent Dementia
MW: Would you tell people to limit the time they spend playing games?
Burak: It’s OK to play every day, but I wouldn’t go beyond three hours a day
Asi Burak is defending the reputation of video games.
“They’re no longer the exclusive domain of teenagers playing in their basement and shooting zombies surrounded by empty pizza boxes,” he says.
Instead, Burak, a game developer and the author, together with Laura Parker of “Power Play: How Video Games Can Save the World,” contends that the right kind of games can make us smarter by training our brains. Indeed, a doctor might one day prescribe some screen time over pills.
One area already being explored is using games to help improve focus, multitasking and working memory. Privately held Akili Interactive is working with drug giant Pfizer Inc. PFE, -0.05% on using a game to identify those at risk of early onset Alzheimer’s and with Shire PLC SHPG, -0.32% SHP, -0.65% in tackling ADHD.
Burak notes that these neurogames will be backed by science. That makes them different from brain training or brain-drilling games now in the market, which he says aren’t backed by rigorous medical evidence.
Burak got his own introduction to the potential of games to change the way we think with “PeaceMaker,” a game he developed about the Israel-Palestine conflict about a decade ago. It lets players pick a side, then react to real-time events and see the impact of their actions. The goal is a peaceful solution. The game wasn’t a commercial success, but it showed that games could be more than just entertainment.
Burak spoke with MarketWatch by email about the changing world of video games and the development of a new area called “games for change.” This is an edited version of the conversation.
MarketWatch: Gamers want their parents (and the rest of us) to believe that video games aren’t just a waste of time. What are some of the stereotypes people have about video games that are just wrong?
Burak: The most common things I tend to hear are “playing video games is a waste of time” or “they are so violent” or “video games are addictive.” These opinions are often being held by parents or other people who do not play video games themselves. As such, they have a very hard time grasping the depth of the medium or following the incredible evolution that games have gone through in recent years, from the explosion of indie and artistic games, to the idea that video games can be meaningful and deal with sociopolitical issues, to the communities of gamers around esports (competitive video gaming).
MW: The iCivics set of video games developed in part by former Supreme Court Justice Sandra Day O’Connor is used by half of all U.S. middle-school teachers to teach government and civics. Why is iCivics so popular? Beyond being free, of course.
Burak: Teachers are treated as partners and the education system is researched, analyzed, and approached with great and engaging solutions. Over the years, the organization led the creation of 19 games, covering areas from the court system to the process of getting a law to approval by Congress. For kids, what could be more engaging than learning from a fun game that asks them to make real choices?
MW: You say video games, even something as violent as “Call of Duty,” can make us smarter. Smarter in what way? Not just learning about the three branches of government but in the sense of more intelligent? Or just in learning skills that we can apply in real-life situations, like surgeons practicing skills they need?
Burak: Often we think about learning in rather basic terms, that it’s very direct or literal. If we create a game that teaches skills or knowledge, this is going to be the outcome. Or that an action game like “Call of Duty” can only improve hand-eye coordination. The reality is more complex and interesting because of the interactivity of games and the plasticity of the brain. We’re only at the beginning of that exploration, but neuroscientists are now finding that certain action games can improve players’ ability to focus, to problem solve and to multitask.
In fact, there is a whole industry now of so-called neurogames that aim to help non-gamers gain some of these cognitive abilities as a result of play — almost like the effects of medicine. New research has proven that video games can fight mental decline and improve memory. It is a matter of design, of course; not all games can achieve that outcome.
MW: What’s the evidence for how video games can help us understand more complex issues and making smarter choices in our lives?
Burak: Video games that are carefully designed can introduce the player to a constrained world with clear rules. And as one explores the game’s dynamics, one gets to understand the relations between different elements, cause and effect, and consequences of different choices. Some games go even further and present sandbox environments, without dictating right or wrong solutions.
MW: In your book, you describe a project called NeuroRacer and later renamed Project EVO that wants to use video games to fight ADHD and to improve detection of early onset Alzheimer’s. The company behind it, Akili Interactive, wants FDA approval as a medical device, which would be a first. It sounds amazing, but how can a video game do that?
Burak: Adam Gazzaley, the researcher behind it, proved that certain gameplay — in this case multitasking while driving a car on a virtual road — could translate into the improvement of cognitive skills that are related to these medical conditions. It is not accidental as he based this discovery on years of prior research and very deep knowledge of how the brain works. He also structured this experience as a repetitive one: The real impact is achieved by playing the game four to five times a week over a month. In his ultimate vision, doctors will prescribe video games to their patients.
MW: Are there other health-related projects like this?
Burak: While this particular industry is young, there are more and more attempts to design video games that can improve or prevent medical conditions. Virtual reality and the capital invested in that technology only boost that trend. If and when the FDA-approval benchmark is reached, this could be a small revolution and a real business opportunity.
MW: Any word on where the FDA approval process stands?
Burak: I’m told the feedback so far is positive. Initially the expectations were to have a final answer by summer 2017, but it’s already behind us. It is a super rigorous and challenging process.
Burak: Most of them aren’t there yet. One exception is Ubisoft UBSFY, -0.39%UBI, -0.75% a major publisher that recognizes the power of video games beyond entertainment. The company even submitted two games that could treat “lazy eye” (amblyopia) for FDA approval. Ubisoft has always been forward-thinking in terms of games’ impact, from their educational game “Valiant Hearts” around World War I to the historical depth of their “Assassin’s Creed” blockbuster games. I hope to see more commercial developers and publishers following their example.
MW: Game developers can make all sorts of claims about saving the world or making us smarter. Where do you become skeptical?
Burak: When game developers do not focus, when their impact goals aren’t crisp and achievable. I am always skeptical about broad claims, no evidence and lack of testing.
MW: Tell me about your own gaming habits.
Burak: I play mainly console games, especially the ones I identify as important or innovative. I tend to choose the most elaborate or complex games, since I am not that young anymore, and I have kids, so I need to plan and make sure the investment of time is worth it.
MW: Would you tell people to limit the time they spend playing games?
Burak: It’s OK to play every day, but I wouldn’t go beyond three hours a day.