Rated E – Not Quite For Everyone

controllerPractice makes perfect, but do you ever wonder why some people need less practice than others? Have you ever been awful at a video game and figured, “oh well I just need to get used to it” but then you never caught on? If you never have been in this position, you can take it from me. It is very upsetting to try and try and still not be able to pick up simple moves in Super Smash Bros, or most games truthfully. For years, I have made excuses as to why I am no good at video games and now I have finally found a possible scientific reason. My brain structure may be my flaw.

The Cerebral Cortex journal posted neurological research that studies the correlation between learning ability and the size of three specific parts of the brain. The researchers took 39 healthy adults aged 18-28 years who has reported playing less than 3 hours of video games a week for the past two years. The research was to be based on their learning ability on a game called Space Fortress, developed at the University of Illinois, over a 20-hour period. These subjects were randomly split into two groups: a fixed priority group and a variable priority group.

Fixed Priority – aim to get the highest score possible

Variable Priority  – series of tasks that forces the player to improve their skills in different areas

Space Fortress
Screenshot of Space fortress from Researchgate.net

Each subject was given an MRI (magnetic resonance imaging) scan to determine the size of three specific structures: the dorsal striatum (putamen and caudate nucleus), the ventral striatum (nucleus accumbens), and the hippocampus. The size of each structure was recorded in comparison to the total volume of the subjects brain.

brain structures.jpeg

chart 1

The chart on the right shows that the learning curve is similar between the groups; however, the variable priority group scored 29% higher by the end of the training. This suggests that we learn better when we allow ourselves to focus on one task at a time. So maybe instead of button smashing on Super Smash Bros., I should be trying to focus on learning the moves of a specific character (but where’s the fun in that?).


When examining the correlation between brain structure and learning ability, the hippocampus was found to not be predictive of performance of improvement. This puts the focus on the striatum. The volumes of the dorsal striatum has a positive correlation with training induced performance improvements for those in the variable priority group. However, the fixed priority group has no relationship with the volumes of the dorsal striatum.

learning curveIn early training sessions, the ventral striatum (nucleus accumbens) was positively correlated with improvements in performance, but the same relationship was not seen in later sessions.


The research was concluded by arguing that “preexisting variations in striatal volume can affect the rate of learning in a complex task that involves the coordination and integration of many cognitive, motor, and perceptual parameters and rules, at least when conditions of learning capitalize on flexible learning strategies.”

That was a lot of science, but basically there are two things to get out of this study (for me, the non-scientific non-gamer).

  1. The way you try to learn a game is important
  2. Some of it may be your brain structures fault

While these discoveries may give me comfort, it is obvious that while these effects may slow down the learning process, it is still possible to become skilled at a game with enough effort.

For now though, I’ll just blame my brain structure for getting kicked out of a Rainbow Six Siege round for not being able to kill a single person.

3 thoughts on “Rated E – Not Quite For Everyone”

  1. As a neuroscience major, I love your post on neuroscience! The findings here make sense with pre-existing knowledge. The striatum is a part of a larger group of brain structures called the basal ganglia, which are responsible for coordinating planned movements. So a correlation between striatum size and video game performance/learning is not surprising.
    Funny enough, the study also supports the general consensus on the best way to get better at League of Legends, which is to focus on learning one champion really well, basically ‘one-tricking’ that champion. The main idea is that once you’ve gotten good at one champion, you can start focusing on mastering the other aspects of the game one at a time, but if you are constantly focused on trying to play your champion, or learning new champions, then you’re never going to be able to focus on learning the larger strategies and intricacies required to become better at the game in general. This fits perfectly with the study results which showed the best improvement with a one-thing-at-a-time approach. Although, I don’t think the League players who started this method had any idea about this study.

  2. I think this post is really interesting, as it has given me a new perspective on new gamers who aren’t used to the kind of thinking needed for some games. I’ve played video games the majority of my life, so games have just become more natural to me, being around them longer. However, I didn’t realize the science that went behind people’s skill level at games when they first pick up the controller.

  3. I find this post really insightful. I’ve never seen such a scientific and inspective lens placed on the gaming community. Your post got me thinking on if people can be genetically predisposed to being good at gaming. Maybe certain phenotypes shown in brain structure/capabilities shown in tests at a young age could tell children if they are born to be the next big Twitch streamers of their generation. As eSports becomes more popular, the neuro-anatomy of successful athletes and how it is monitored will be interesting trends to watch!

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