The pleasure centers in our brain respond to positive outcomes and winning is no different. Yet, beating different opponents may have different values to a player. Apart from examining the brains responses to winning or losing in a video game, Kätsyri and colleagues examined whether these differences are further exaggerated by the type of opponent: human or computer.
To examine the effect of an opponent, the authors used 17 subjects and allowed them to play a tank fighting game and used functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) to image real-time brain responses towards winning and losing events. Rather than having different types of opponents, the treatments differed in only whether the subject thought they were playing against a human or a computer as it was always the same human male opponent for all the trials.
What the authors found was that responses in the pleasure areas of the brain were most intense when winning against a human. This suggests that the mere perception of a difference of a social context can have incredible effects on how rewarding the brain perceives the win.
Although the study uncovers some intersting aspects about brain responses, it further questions the level of variation that occurs in these responses. Most importantly, whether there are differences acorss genders in such a response. Perhaps this could explain the gender biases we see in gaming preferences.
Kätsyri, J., Hari, R., Ravaja, N., Nummenmaa, L., 2012. The opponent matters: elevated fMRI reward responses to winning against a human versus a computer opponent during interactive video game playing. 23:2829-2839.
Winning against an opponent in a competitive video game can be expected to be more rewarding than losing, especially when the opponent is a fellow human player rather than a computer. We show that winning versus losing in a first-person video game activates the brain’s reward circuit and the ventromedial prefrontal cortex (vmPFC) differently depending on the type of the opponent. Participants played a competitive tank shooter game against alleged human and computer opponents while their brain activity was measured with functional magnetic resonance imaging. Brain responses to wins and losses were contrasted by fitting an event-related model to the hemodynamic data. Stronger activation to winning was observed in ventral and dorsal striatum as well as in vmPFC. Activation in ventral striatum was associated with participants’ self-ratings of pleasure. During winning, ventral striatum showed stronger functional coupling with right insula, and weaker coupling with dorsal striatum, sensorimotor pre- and postcentral gyri, and visual association cortices. The vmPFC and dorsal striatum responses were stronger to winning when the subject was playing against a human rather than a computer. These results highlight the importance of social context in the neural encoding of reward value.