You're running down a corridor in a castle that's under attack by terrorists.
Why would terrorists want to blow up a castle, you start to wonder, but your musings are cut short. As you round the corner, you bump into not one but three of the fortress-hating fiends. No problem - you're carrying an AK-47 which you picked up from the corpse of one of their buddies. You open fire, and two go down, but the third turns on you with his handgun.
Luckily, this castle is full of huge wooden crates, and you manage to duck behind one. He's out of ammo - but so are you. You desperately try to reload. Just before your new clip is in place... the experiment ends, and you're taken out of the MRI scanner.
This was what it must have been like to take part in an fMRI study just out from a group of German neuroscientists: Neural contributions to flow experience during video game playing. The authors measured brain activity in response to playing a computer game in order to work out the neural correlates of "flow": the feeling of being in the game world, not merely playing it.
Video game brain scanning studies aren't new but previous ones have tended to use simplistic "games" designed specifically for research. This study used a real one, a first-person shooted called Tactical Ops. It's 9 years old and it was not bad, but it was basically a copy of Counter Strike. Which for the younger gamers amongst you was pretty much Call of Duty: Black Ops. Which, for the non-gamers amongst you, is a game where you run around and shoot people.
Anyway, 13 male volunteers took part. They all played quite a lot of games, several hours per week. The experiment consisted of 5 rounds of Tactical Ops, each round lasting at least 12 minutes.
The authors were specifically interested in the experience of flow which was defined by the famous Mihály "That Flow Guy...Sizzenzy...You Know Who I Mean Right" Csíkszentmihályi as consisting of several things including "direct and unambiguous feedback of action results" and "clear goals of the activity" amongst others.
But when during the game were players most strongly experiencing these factors, specifically? This is where things get a bit weird. Rather than asking the players, they watched the replays of what happened during the rounds and noted when certain events happened, using these as a proxy for 5 "flow factors". Clear goals, for example, were rated as present during active fighting and so on, but absent when players were just wandering around the same room for 10 or more seconds.
That makes a lot of sense. However in order to assess "direct feedback of action results", they decided that
High feedback was coded if the player further interacted with the dead body of the victim after the kill, whereas low feedback was coded when the latter was not observable. Success events were only considered if they ended the combat situation and the player did not have to subsequently face other opponents.
In other words, if you just killed a guy and ran off that was not evidence of direct feedback, but if you subsequently "interacted" with his body it was. I'm not sure what this interaction involved... traditionally in these games it means doing something involving tea and bagging. Hmm. To be fair, the authors did verify that the flow factors were happening at these times, in a seperate set of 15 players. That one, however, didn't work.
Anyway, they found various areas of different activation for each of the 5 flow factors, except the aforementioned teabagging one, where they found no effect. The areas involved in each were rather different in each case (see above) but when they pooled across all four of the factors that did product activations, they found an overall effect in two areas: the cerebellum and the left somatosensory cortex.
The idea of using actual videogames in an fMRI experiment is a very nice one, and this study shows that it's feasible (it's not easy, due to the limitations of the equipment you can put inside a scanner.) However, I'm not sure that these are the areas I'd have expected to be flow-y. Especially not the cerebellum. But as the authors say:
Flow is a highly subjective experience...we investigated situations with an enhanced probability of flow experience. Obviously, this is not equivalent to measuring flow experiences directly.
Klasen M, Weber R, Kircher TT, Mathiak KA, & Mathiak K (2011). Neural contributions to flow experience during video game playing. Social cognitive and affective neuroscience PMID: 21596764