Glimpses into the human mind tend to grab our attention and keep us wondering just exactly how our own brains work. Any clues or insights as to how the most complex machine, our control center, works tend to be welcomed by the general public and scientists alike. At the time of this writing, the third youngest chess grand champion of all time, Magnus Carlsen, was interviewed as a guest on the popular television show, The Colbert Report a few nights ago. For years, chess and chess grandmasters have been the focus of such studies and interest, but when stopping to wonder if anything else could possibly allow neuroscientists to have a tad longer than just a fleeting look into our gray matter, one can’t help but think some other choices exist. I don’t know about anybody else, but the whole, “Did you know you only use 10% of your brain?” tends to get pretty old. Gee, thanks.
One of these popular options is played worldwide, named StarCraft 2 (SC2) the real time strategy game produced by Blizzard Entertainment, known mostly for its immensely successful World of Warcraft. The game StarCraft 2 centers around two players facing off on a map, which would be akin to the board in chess, with limited resources that the player must gather and then use to build units. The different units, or pieces, are able to be created or built progressively, with certain buildings allowing, generally, more and more complex units to be built. Certain buildings are required to build higher tiered buildings (and hence units) with the idea of balance playing a crucial role in the game’s development. Balance, probably the most important factor in any game or sport, is almost a given in chess, with mirrored pieces and the same board or map every game.
The objective in SC2, like chess, is to defeat your opponent or force surrender by a variety of means, all centered around combat. The 3-D element, when comparing chess and a modern video game like SC2, allows for much more variety, as well as a litany of recordable stats, and a list of intricacies too long to delve into this article, which truly allow for new depth. The sheer number of games being played at any one moment, online and worldwide, is enormous, and data mining this information anonymously saved has huge potential. A major difference to note though, is while a chess match begins with and allows both players constant, omniscient, view of the battlefield, StarCraft 2 has a type of fog of war, which means only what is immediately nearby any of a player’s units on the battlefield may view or reveal that area of the map to them. This insignificant sounding difference is what truly allows the “Real Time Strategy” (non stop playing; not turn based play) part of the game to bring not just repeated patterns or finite number of piece moves, albeit enormous, but psychological elements, similar to chess but more varied and important when examined closely. For example, with the fog, one is able to psyche out their opponent, like tricking them into defending a fake attack, or hiding a certain type of building/technology that allows for a surprise attack with units, or abilities your opponent is definitely not expecting, nor ready for.
Both chess and SC2 use patterns in play to develop seemingly unconscious, instant conclusions based on very limited information, but the nonstop portion of a game like SC2 changes things up quite a bit. Chess champions have tried explaining for decades how they practice and what they visualize in order to become as good as they are, but the quick decision making, variety of units, and a basis in combat allows SC2 for much deeper game play and sheer number of possibilities that chess cannot ever dream of achieving. Directly correlated to these previous reasons, SC2 has huge crowd or fan appeal. The original game, which launched back in 1998, has been basically the national sport of South Korea for some time, but over the last year or two the rest of the world has caught up in both skill and interest of E-Sports.
Players are repeatedly forced to make split second decisions on the fly. Unlike chess, players in SC2 have direct control of the pieces or units that they are using to fight their opponent. This allows, for example, players to pull back damaged units from the front lines to preserve their offensive capability. SC2 has three races, as well as different maps and spawning locations, which must be discovered by opponents to find each others location. Each race has its own set of units, and, by extension, its own strengths and weaknesses. The depth and potential number of actions/decisions when compared to chess allows for a staggering number of possibilities, and studies could quickly replace the use of chess as the most commonly used method of learning about and understanding what makes an expert’s brain different than an average person or player.
A combination of factors, such as a deep implementation by Blizzard that allows for recording of a variety of statistics of games occurring world wide, is getting both players and brain scientists excited about the possibilities of what can be learned regarding what separates the world gaming elite from the average player. Like chess being studied to learn similar things, StarCraft 2 may revolutionize what we know thus far about our own nerve centers and even ideas of self.
With 72% of American households playing video games according to the Entertainment Software Association, the excitement and feeling of actual influence a single person can have on the studies has many talking- common gamers, science buffs, and scientists alike.