...really good teaching is about not seeing the world the way that everyone else does...

"Good teachers perceive the world in alternative terms, and they push their students to test out these new, potentially enriching perspectives. Sometimes they do so in ways that are, to say the least, peculiar."
Mark Edmundson, "Geek Lessons" NYT, 2008

Wednesday, 17 June 2009

Empathy ansd Conditioning Violence

Not so long ago, video games were considered to be a harmless distraction for young people. Now, they're being blamed for unhealthy addictions, acts of violence, and parental neglect. But is that really the whole story? With these ongoing reports, GameSpot will investigate how video games really affect us--how they affect our culture, how we perceive ourselves and other people, and how ongoing issues like game-related lawsuits and legislation affect us.

Neuroscience and video games. What do they have to do with each other? Aside from whatever research went into crafting games like Psi-Ops and Psychonauts, it doesn't seem like the two subjects have much in common. Sure, neuroscience is the study of the brain, and despite what everyone tells you, you do use your brain when you're playing video games. But what are the chances that the latest neuroscientific research is going to be of any interest to the game industry? Well, if you've been following the (relatively) recent work on mirror neurons, then you would realize that neuroscience is about to have a huge impact--if not on video games, then on the discussions we have about them--for a long time to come.

What Is a Mirror Neuron?
Motor functions, such as grasping a game controller or punching a friend in the shoulder after you lose a Tekken match, have always been understood as the result of a fairly straightforward process. There are cells in our brain that fire off signals to the muscles, and then we perform the appropriate actions. But 15 years ago, scientists studying monkeys noticed that the cells in the brain that fire when a monkey holds a peanut fire in the exact same way when the monkey simply sees someone holding a peanut. Called mirror neurons because they behave as if the monkey were watching itself in the mirror, these neurons allow the monkey to empathize, or automatically understand the experience of holding the peanut, without actually having to hold the peanut itself.

If we see ourselves as DOA4 characters, then we'd probably be feeling both a lot of pleasure and a lot of pain.

This discovery, which some scientists are lauding as the most significant neurological finding in recent history, explains why we so easily relate to the actions of others, even if their actions are not always obvious. We can tell if someone is watching a television by the way that person is facing it--even if we can't see or hear if the television is even on. It also means that we can experience the mental states associated with actions without ever having to perform those actions. In video games, in particular, it's like we're automatically empathizing with what is happening on the screen as if we were the video game characters ourselves. If you've ever had a particularly heart-palpitating race in Burnout, surely you can relate.


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