Because reward-related neural activity often peaks transiently in response to the appearance or anticipation of motivationally-relevant stimuli, primary analyses assessed effects of interactive gameplay on reward-related mesolimbic activation during the first 2 sec following gameplay onset. As hypothesized, game onset in the active play group was associated with increased neural activity in the striatum (including the nucleus accumbens, caudate, and putamen), anterior cingulate, and posterior insula within the active play group. Whole-brain analyses identified a diverse array of additional regional effects, including activation in subregions of parahippocampal gyrus. Initiation of interactive gameplay significantly decreased activity in the dorsolateral prefrontal cortex and parietal cortex
These data also identify the participatory nature of interactive gameplay as a key driver of those neural responses. Temporal analyses of transition between pause conditions and active gameplay confirmed that ventral striatal activation was not driven solely by state transition-induced arousal (as might be hypothesized under theories interpreting mesolimbic dopamine activity in terms of novelty
…personal involvement and agency may represent key psychological drivers of [serious gaming] impact on behavior. While the highly vivid and dynamic event streams generated during IDG play do activate sensory neural structures, player involvement in shaping the event stream (i.e., interactivity) was required to substantially engage motivation-related brain circuits in response..
Another unexpected finding was that extended periods of active IDG play were associated with reduced activity in some regions, including the medial prefrontal cortex, striatum, and medial temporal lobe. Future studies will be required to replicate these findings and determine their psychological basis, but such dynamics would be consistent with the hypothesis that playing IDGs alters the cognitive pathways through which information is processed.
For example, the observed reductions in medial prefrontal activity during extended periods of gameplay would be consistent with hypotheses that gameplay
(1) inhibits controlled information processing and preferentially activates more automatic subcortical systems that focus on immediate goals
(2) activates an implemental action system at the expense of deliberative information processing
(3) disengages the “default mode” network as players re-engage the “task positive” network to resume gameplay.
Interestingly, gameplay onset was transiently associated with increased activity in sub-regions of the medial pre-frontal cortex – a pattern opposite to the deactivation observed over the broader medial prefrontal region during extended periods of interactive gameplay.