Resolving your oedipal conflicts?

What is going on in our subconscious when we play games and what makes us play over and over again?

In the future, video games will help you lose weight and even diagnose your psychological problems.

In a study recently published in The American Journal of Psychiatry, researchers at the US National Institute of Mental Health found that clinical depression could be reliably diagnosed by the way some scenes from Duke Nukem - a popular video game - were played.

Previous research has established that the brains of those who sufferer from serious depression contain a shrunken area called the hippocampus, which is also the part of the brain we use to navigate around the world - in other words where spatial memory resides. In Duke Nukem, you have to find your way around a virtual town and depressives performed relatively poorly at this particular task.

Detecting brain changes

So video games hold out the potential to test with high specificity the very earliest changes in brain function, too subtle to emerge in a clinical interview. Perhaps the warning message will not in the future be just that you are running out of ammo, but that you should visit the doctor.

Fears that a couch potato generation has been spawned by video games replacing playground activity might be premature - already studies have been published showing that some active video dance games, where you have to make correctly sequenced steps on floor mats to score points, have significantly promoted weight loss.

Released in 1999, Dance Dance Revolution, from Konami, not only took off to the tune of 2.5 million units sold in the USA alone, but the latest version tells you how many calories you are burning per dance session, and comes with a 30-day trial membership to a 24-hour fitness gym franchise. US health insurance corporations are now promoting the use of the game among their insured, to reduce future health claims.

There is no doubt we are just at the threshold of what video games are capable of in terms of their impact and enmeshment in our lives.

Play alters your brain

"Play" is clearly a serious business. The size of the mammalian brain across species is directly correlated with how much time is spent at play during youth. Something important is being learned, and a key element in brain development occurs, during play. It follows that anything that interferes with play, or changes its nature, could have more profound implications than is currently realised by policy-makers.

The safe exhilaration of this form of play - no one ever fell off their virtual skateboard and hurt themselves playing Tony Hawk's Pro Skater 4 - is part of the reason that video games are now well on their way to becoming the only way we play.

The first theory that psychologists came up with from their research was that video games are a bit like "electronic friends". When asked, many adolescents indicated that they preferred playing on their computers to engaging with friends, plus they saw their machines as companions. Surveys confirmed that those who played a lot of video games did indeed boast fewer friends.

Freudians put the computer on the couch when they argued that adolescents love violent video games as their way of resolving "oedipal conflicts". What this means is that, at a time of heightened anxiety, as you face the prospect of abandoning childhood, instead of acting out your repressed fantasy of assaulting your father for possessing your mother and so depriving you of her, you turn to a "shoot-em-up" game to release that pent-up rage.

Reward and punishment

The "rats in a maze" behavourists countered instead that the gradual accretion of skill and mastery, interspersed with regular reward, is the key to a potent cocktail. Video games are a behavioural psychologists' paradise in terms of reward and punishment - any action or inaction has consequences and these are designed to shape the players' behaviour. The game gradually moulds you so that you become transformed into a creature who can ever-more fully engage with the game and gain yet more reward points from it.

However, computer scientists Pippin Barr, James Noble and Robert Biddle, at the Universities of Wellington and Carleton in New Zealand and Canada, have just published a provocative academic paper in the journal Interacting with Computers, which argues that it is only by understanding the values that games promote that we can fully grasp their attraction.

A value - contend Barr and colleagues - is a tendency to prefer one action over another (for example, killing an enemy over making peace with them) and video games are laden with implicit values. These computer scientists propose an intriguing methodology for exposing the value system, which otherwise remains covert, and this is to play the game but not to do what the computer expects or encourages you to.

Deviance is not tolerated

So, for example, in a war game shoot-'em-up, Barr and colleagues encourage us to try playing as an archetypal pacifist and see what happens. What happens is you get killed very rapidly. The game does not tolerate or reward any deviance from its implicit values.

The idea of attempting to be a rebellious player in order to discover what the game is really about clearly has a striking resemblance to rebellion in the real world - we often discover how non-benign seemingly benevolent governments are when they come up against opposition or non-conformity.

However, there is a new genre of games, launched with Grand Theft Auto III in 2001, where you are meant to stroll around a city mugging, killing and stealing cars. But if you mysteriously choose not to and instead, ignore the violent plot line and explore the rich never-ending virtual environment, this would not inevitably result in your virtual death. However, side-stepping the plot line does not produce the same intense interaction with other characters as attempting to kill them does. The only mental states that these games recognise and reward are narcissism, paranoia and aggression.

Many second-life, simulation and empire building games seem to permit simple curiosity and exploration, but this is still within very set boundaries, and a whole set of behaviours around rebellion and questioning have no place here. Without realising it, play in the sense of true adventure and exploration, is in grave danger of being hijacked by digital corporations.

Yearning for reward

Whatever our preferences in video games, they do teach us something about ourselves, if we are prepared for a bit of an unpleasant shock. They suggest that, deep down, we love rules, we adore structure, we yearn to be rewarded. Basically, we crave a pat on the back (even if it's an electronic one) for obediently changing in the way the game - or others want us to.

What is truly terrifying about video games is they reveal in full high-definition sensurround sound just how much we prefer to be given goals, rather than negotiate them for ourselves.

Dr Raj Persaud is Gresham Professor for Public Understanding of Psychiatry and Consultant Psychiatrist at The Bethlem Royal and Maudsley NHS Hospitals Trust