Girly Games

My latest science news write-ups on the SpectroscopyNOW portal are now up for grabs. This week, I cover the apparent gender gap when it comes to computer games, how Japanese researchers are using near-infrared light to probe young women’s brains to find out if they can reduce stress and potentially acne with pleasant fragrances, and the discovery that cancer cells seem to be stuffed full of the dreaded trans fats. You can find my other spec news from this week linked in the Sciencebase Geeky Bits column.

Perfect skinHowever, I want to step back a little with respect to that video games research. The team used the apparently powerful technique of functional MRI (basically a brain scan that can spot changes and lights up active regions of the brain). The researchers devised a very simple computer game, a kind of cross between Tetris and Pong (without the bats). To win you had to gain territory. The researchers scanned the brains of males and females while they played this game. Their results showed that men and women got the game, but the men were sharper when it came to realising you had to use a particular strategy to gain the most territory.

What was most interesting to Allan Reiss and colleagues at Stanford University School of Medicine who carried out the research was that the region of the brain associated with rewarding feelings lit up the most in the males than in the females. This, the researchers say, suggests a possible explanation as to why males enjoy, and even become addicted to, video games more commonly than females. “These gender differences may help explain why males are more attracted to, and more likely to become ‘hooked’ on video games than females,” Reiss explains in the Journal of Psychiatric Research.

Now, I take issue with the fundamental assumption that Reiss and his colleagues make regarding video games. While historically video games have been aimed almost squarely at boys, the manufacturers over the last few years have recognised that they only corner half the potential market with such a biased aim. As such, they have developed dozens of new types of games that are not of the familiar war and killing fantasy type. They have also remodelled their hardware to offer colours and skins that will appeal to females, the pink and white Nintendos, for instance, generally appeal to the female market more than the blue.

More to the point though, my ten-year old daughter and dozens, if not all, of her friends have taken to Nintendos, Wiis, Playstations, Tamagotchi, just as addictively as their male counterparts, fighting for screen time on their various devices and computers. Admittedly, the games they play are more frequently of the SingStar, Petz, and Sims kind as opposed to Halo, World of Warcraft etc. They also network with each other online in various online games with small furry animals rather than three-eyed aliens with vast armaments. Like I say, though, they are just as addicted to these games as the boys.

So, while Reiss’s work is fascinating and does hint vaguely at latent aspects of how territorialism evolved in the male brain. One has to wonder whether if he and his colleagues created a different type of game, a more “feminine” type game, like a pet simulation, for instance, they would see those reward centres lighting up more brightly in the female brain. Perhaps if the experiment had had an intrinsic bias towards a feminine type of game and they’d seen such activity in their fMRI, they would have come to a very different conclusion about video game addiction.