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Empathy For Virtual Characters Studied With FMRI Brain Imaging

Unknown Lamer posted about 2 months ago | from the little-billy-loved-hearing-virtual-screams dept.

Science 52

vrml (3027321) writes "A novel brain imaging study published by the prestigious Neuroimage journal sheds light on different reactions that players' brains display when they meet a virtual character in a game world. While their head was inside a fMRI machine, participants played an interactive virtual experience in which they had to survive a serious fire emergency in a building by reaching an exit as soon as possible. However, when they finally arrived at the exit, they also found a virtual character trapped under an heavy cabinet, begging them for help. Some participants chose not to help the character and took the exit, while others stopped to help although the fire became more and more serious and moving away the cabinet required considerable time. Functional brain imaging showed activation of very different brain areas in players when they met the character. When there was an increased functional connectivity of the brain salience network, which suggests an enhanced sensitivity to the threatening situation and potential danger, players ignored the character screams and went for the exit. In those players who helped the character, there was an engagement of the medial prefrontal and temporo-parietal cortices, which in the neuroscience literature are associated with the human ability of taking the perspective of other individuals and making altruistic choices. The paper concludes by emphasizing how virtual worlds can be a salient and ecologically valid stimulus for modern social neuroscience."

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The Psychopath Test (0)

Anonymous Coward | about 2 months ago | (#47522335)

Video games could be a reliable test of an individual's capacity for empathy. Like, if you kill all the Little Sisters, you're definitely a monster in real life.

Re:The Psychopath Test (3, Insightful)

Megane (129182) | about 2 months ago | (#47523515)

A tortoise lays on its back, its belly baking in the hot sun beating its legs trying to turn itself over but it can't, not without your help, but you're not helping. Why is that?

Gömböc (2)

tepples (727027) | about 2 months ago | (#47523623)

A tortoise lays on its back, its belly baking in the hot sun beating its legs trying to turn itself over but it can't, not without your help, but you're not helping. Why is that?

Traffic law forbids me to stop my vehicle on the interstate highway. That and a tortoise's shell has a ridge down the middle [wikipedia.org] to help it flip back over. With practice, it will manage.

You know, if you keep repeating the script for your empathy test in public, people are going to catch on and memorize plausible answers that cause your Voight-Kampff lie detector to display "inconclusive". An insect lands on my arm while I'm watching the local weather forecast? Flick it off. That's why real life psychological tests are kept under non-disclosure agreement.

Re:Gömböc (1)

X0563511 (793323) | about 2 months ago | (#47524473)

Hell, even if traffic laws didn't, running out into the highway (or just stopping your car on it) is not exactly safe. The nice thing to do would be to rescue the thing, but not at significant risk to your own health/life.

Re:Gömböc (0)

Anonymous Coward | about 2 months ago | (#47524591)

memorize plausible answers that cause your Voight-Kampff lie detector to display "inconclusive".

It's not the answers, it's the reaction that counts. Rachael was able to answer more than 100 of Deckard's questions before she reacted to one of them. Leon blew away the interrogator after a couple of them. Clearly a replicant.

Re:Gömböc (1)

tepples (727027) | about 2 months ago | (#47527287)

memorize plausible answers that cause your Voight-Kampff lie detector to display "inconclusive".

It's not the answers, it's the reaction that counts.

The same is true of anything else that behaves like a polygraph. A question with a memorized answer elicits a different reaction from an unexpected question. So if you start getting a bunch of memorized-answer reactions among the populace, you're going to have to rotate in different questions.

Re:Gömböc (1)

Nephandus (2953269) | about 2 months ago | (#47528861)

Ironic. The "more human" one actually passed by failing the "humanity" test. Leon was genuinely disturbed by the questions though not exactly in a "normal" manner. Rachael was a flat-line. That implication was personally disturbing and confusing as child. Even weirder now since I notice neurotypicals would likewise pass such by failing while real autists would more likely fail by passing, though the former would be way more likely to shoot you, natch.

Also, reminds me of Robocop (the series...) noting a politician was passing his voice stress analyzer by such deep conditioning that he couldn't even intentionally fail. Those'd easily pass such an emotion test would more likely fail such a stress test and vice versa. How much "empathy" nowadays is shallow, myopic, conditioned cliche? Lack of empathy for acceptable targets not only gets free passes but even can count for empathy points via privileging of "normality" and its redefining "humanity" as a term of social approval. The socially recognized "nice" people are usually the most deluded and/or deceitful.

Re:The Psychopath Test (1)

Krishnoid (984597) | about 2 months ago | (#47524283)

You no longer have to guess -- now you can ask these two. [nydailynews.com]

Re:The Psychopath Test (1)

Megane (129182) | about 2 months ago | (#47567647)

The worst part is that they filmed it with vertical video! Lock up those punks!

Re:The Psychopath Test (0)

Anonymous Coward | about 2 months ago | (#47524849)

Because I hate Koopas.

I feel sorry... (0)

Anonymous Coward | about 2 months ago | (#47522337)

.. for whoever gets first post

kind of clever (2)

Trepidity (597) | about 2 months ago | (#47522349)

Really this is more about finding a way to collect proxy data for neuroscience, than about studying virtual worlds (despite the /. title). A problem with FMRi studies is that it's often hard to get people to both do what you want to study, and have them be hooked up to the FMRi at the same time. Videogames have the desirable property that people can do things in a "world" while conveniently keeping their head physically parked in the lab.

unimpressive study (0)

Anonymous Coward | about 2 months ago | (#47522467)

While their head was inside a fMRI machine

Keep in mind that this is the same technology that found significant mental activity in a dead fish [discovermagazine.com] .

Ignoring the above and just going by the conclusion, it looks like it's just a case of 'players who expect a trap will not assist the NPC.'

Re:unimpressive study (2)

oculusprime (1250270) | about 2 months ago | (#47523003)

The dead salmon study had nothing to do with fMRI per se, it had to do with correction for multiple comparisons. fMRI measures hemodynamic brain activity at thousands of separate locations. If you don't correct the statistics for multiple comparisons you will get false positives. Even in a dead salmon.

This study may be unimpressive (I haven't read it yet), but not because of dead salmon.

Re:unimpressive study (1)

X0563511 (793323) | about 2 months ago | (#47524491)

You didn't actually read the article you linked to, did you?

fMRI? (1, Insightful)

argStyopa (232550) | about 2 months ago | (#47522523)

Didn't an animal study in 2009 or so show that fMRI was fundamentally flawed, as it showed brain activity in DEAD salmon?

Ah, here it is:
http://blogs.scientificamerica... [scientificamerican.com]

Re:fMRI? (4, Funny)

gstoddart (321705) | about 2 months ago | (#47522535)

It's not dead, it's pining for the fjords.

Re:fMRI? (0)

Anonymous Coward | about 2 months ago | (#47522555)

In this case, the NPC's were connected to a fMRI simulator, so it's OK.

Re:fMRI? (4, Interesting)

Elbows (208758) | about 2 months ago | (#47522603)

Interesting article. But I don't think it reaches the conclusion that you're suggesting.

Some people like to use the salmon study as proof that fMRI is woo, but this isn't the case, it's actually a study to show the importance of correcting your stats.

So basically fMRI studies are only as good (or as bad) as the statistical analysis you do of the data. Which is probably the case for a large portion of modern science.

Re:fMRI? (0)

Anonymous Coward | about 2 months ago | (#47522629)

From the link provided above

Some people like to use the salmon study as proof that fMRI is woo, but this isn’t the case, it’s actually a study to show the importance of correcting your stats.

Please at least try to report scientific results correctly.

Re:fMRI? (0)

Anonymous Coward | about 2 months ago | (#47523083)

Just because you are dead doesn't mean that there isn't chemical activity still going on in the brain.
The more interesting question is if that activity in any way can be considered to be thoughts.

Re:fMRI? (2)

oculusprime (1250270) | about 2 months ago | (#47523143)

Heh! Well yes there are chemical reactions involving the breakdown and decay of biological tissue, but the methods used in conventional functional MRI wouldn't be sensitive to that. The dead salmon result has everything to do with statistical correction for multiple comparisons, or lack thereof.

Re:fMRI? (1)

X0563511 (793323) | about 2 months ago | (#47524509)

True, but this isn't the case. In the case of the dead fish, they didn't filter the results (google "multiple comparisons correction") and got bullshit data because of it.

Re:fMRI? (1)

h5inz (1284916) | about 2 months ago | (#47523421)

"The procedure is similar to MRI but uses the change in magnetization between oxygen-rich and oxygen-poor blood as its basic measure."- so now think about it. Yes it could find false positives in dead fish brain, but it is still a good way to acquire information about the brain activity of a living being. Yes I also do know that a damaged brain area also shows abnormally high oxidation but you can just pick the healthy volunteers for this kind of study. It sometimes seems that some people just don't want to understand things.
http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/F... [wikipedia.org]

Re:fMRI? (1)

X0563511 (793323) | about 2 months ago | (#47524499)

All that proves is why multiple comparisons correction is so important, and why everyone uses it.

Ophelia (0)

Anonymous Coward | about 2 months ago | (#47522525)

So we will now know why all the little girls go googly for poor Ophelia when she takes her bath?

NPC (1)

ArcadeMan (2766669) | about 2 months ago | (#47522587)

Brain scans and actions aside, did they question the people who didn't save the NPC, or were they asked to act as if everything in the simulation was real?

Without the last instruction, my thought would have been "screw the NPC, I'm not going to fail the test for a virtual

And no, I didn't RTFA.

Re:NPC (1)

sandytaru (1158959) | about 2 months ago | (#47522639)

My question was more along the lines of "do these people in the simulation regularly play video games?" I'm a long time gamer and I would assume that saving the bystander AND getting to the fire exit would be the required goals for a maximum score, even if I knew that there was no "score."

Re:NPC (1)

ArcadeMan (2766669) | about 2 months ago | (#47522801)

Reading about this test kind of reminded me of the test given to Wesley Crusher [wikipedia.org] in Star Trek: The Next Generation.

Re:NPC (1)

X0563511 (793323) | about 2 months ago | (#47524525)

You don't need to know why, because what they were measuring is what steers the reasoning. You either have the emotional response or you don't.

To be honest... (1)

NecroPuppy (222648) | about 2 months ago | (#47522595)

There are days that I can rarely work up empathy for real people.

Coincidentally, those are the days that I have to drive on the 405. I wonder if there is a connection?

Re:To be honest... (0)

Anonymous Coward | about 2 months ago | (#47522831)

Exactly, take a look at the bystander effect (apathy)

Virtusl mapping of brain areas (1)

Impy the Impiuos Imp (442658) | about 2 months ago | (#47522651)

> virtual dangerous fire escape

"After further study to discern the validity of the virtual-to-real world response, we have decided to rename the region of the brain that lit up in the rescuers as the "minimaxxer seeking rare drops" area and that of those who just fled as the "IDGAF trolls hahahablongota".

Re:Virtusl mapping of brain areas (1)

Quirkz (1206400) | about 2 months ago | (#47523011)

Shouldn't the DIAF acronym work into your analysis somewhere?

Hey Buddy (1)

sociocapitalist (2471722) | about 2 months ago | (#47522673)

How much virtual money is your virtual life worth? 10k fakecoins and I'll help you escape...

Would take a long time but... (1)

GameboyRMH (1153867) | about 2 months ago | (#47522687)

...They should make someone play FF7 and run this test at the point where Aerith(/Aeris) dies.

Re:Would take a long time but... (0)

Anonymous Coward | about 2 months ago | (#47523259)

only works if they never played it before.

better one would be Argilla and roland in Digital Devil Saga II dies. that was unexpected and surprising (and really agrivating if you use them alot)

fMRIs in the news again... (0)

Anonymous Coward | about 2 months ago | (#47522857)

and a new new study says most press releases and news bulletins talking about fMRI are basically totally unsound bullshit that could make a sociologist blush.

Which fMRI studies to trust? (1)

oculusprime (1250270) | about 2 months ago | (#47523027)

The brain is a big place, and fMRI is used to study all of it because its the best method available for non-invasive study of the human brain. Some sub-fields of fMRI are pretty solid, the vision stuff for example is generally high quality. Other areas in fMRI are rife with over-interpreted and poorly controlled studies. Social neuroscience is perhaps the worst.

Depends (2)

Rande (255599) | about 2 months ago | (#47522873)

Is the NPC rescue a quest?
Is it likely to give significant XP/Gold?
Does the NPC respawn even after I've rescued it once?

Control issues? (1)

XMark3 (2979399) | about 2 months ago | (#47522899)

I wonder if some of the people who refused to help the NPC were simply not too familiar with first-person games and confused about the controls? Moving a cabinet and pulling up a person to safety are things that could require complex interactions with the environment and many of the participants in the test were probably just getting used to walking around.

Re:Control issues? (1)

Joe Gillian (3683399) | about 2 months ago | (#47522937)

In the study itself, they mention that the participants were given a tutorial on how the controls worked - there were only apparently a few buttons and they were all very simple to understand (one was "move" and one was "push"). What I'm wondering about is whether this one effect that I don't think has a name came into play. According to the study, to free the trapped character, the participants had to push the "Push" button a total of 41 times. There were a few participants who started pushing and didn't finish, which makes me wonder if there was any visual effect when hitting the button.

If there was no clear indication that hitting the button was helping anything, people might not have bothered because they didn't think they could do anything. Alternatively, it might not have been clear that the simple "push" button was enough to move the cabinet.

Re:Control issues? (1)

ruir (2709173) | about 2 months ago | (#47523559)

I can relate that I would not push a darn button 41 (!) times.

I see issues either way (2)

Cro Magnon (467622) | about 2 months ago | (#47522945)

Maybe they didn't help because the "person" wasn't real. Or, maybe they did help because they weren't in real physical danger. I don't know how relevant either is to the "real world".

On the other hand... (1)

fahrbot-bot (874524) | about 2 months ago | (#47523561)

...when they finally arrived at the exit, they also found a virtual character trapped under an heavy cabinet, begging them for help. Some participants chose not to help the character and took the exit, while others stopped to help although the fire became more and more serious and moving away the cabinet required considerable time.

...which suggests an enhanced sensitivity to the threatening situation and potential danger, players ignored the character screams and went for the exit. In those players who helped the character, there was an engagement of the medial prefrontal and temporo-parietal cortices,

Perhaps this just shows the difference between types of people that compete vs. cooperate or selfish vs. selfless. Personally, I hope that if I'm ever in a situation like that for real, I'm the latter type of person.

Politicians (0)

Anonymous Coward | about 2 months ago | (#47523743)

would all run for the door whilst proclaiming that they will return and help...

When I hear a scream in a computer game, via some (0)

Anonymous Coward | about 2 months ago | (#47526693)

synethetic mechanism, I see if then set flag enable interrupt handler to sound card, etc.

Computer games are so much less entertaining when you have written pieces of them. I certainly don't feel for a character when I'm using half my available brain power trying to figure out the best way to implement something that happens on screen.

Good to lose (1)

AndyCanfield (700565) | about 2 months ago | (#47526731)

The Thai government taught me, years ago, that sometimes it is better to lose than to win, because you do not want to become what you would have to be in order to win. In that case the choice was to let the militants go free or to slaughter them. The Thai government, wisely, let them go.

In amother case the Lao government invaded Thailand and occupied a refugee camp where the refugees from Laos were staging attacks into Laos. The camp was on the top of a hill. The Thai border police surrounded the bottom of the hill, and sat there until the Lao army went home. No war.

In this case the choice is to rescue a fellow human trapped in a burning building, or to ignore his pleas and let him burn. Would you want to be friends with someone who did that? IN THAT REALITY, the pleader is a real person and decent people will treat him as such. I would help save the guy, because I do not want to be the kind of person who could let him die.

Re:Good to lose (1)

Nephandus (2953269) | about 2 months ago | (#47528997)

"Is it better to out-monster the monster or to be quietly devoured?"
Might want to look up slave morality though. Those who refuse to eat monsters just make them well fed. Would I want to be "friends" with people that expect me to dive under the bus when useful to them? Reciprocity rarely exists in reality, mostly just the pretense wrapped in sophistry, and it's assumption is of no utility when you lose more than you gain.

Mostly I leave people the fuck alone and wish they neutrally fucked off. Even the well meaning are mostly parasitic to me and obstacles to my purposes. The golden rule is pyrite but makes for a nice beatin' stick when its bruises double as scarlet letters for violation of a given subculture's version of PC.
"Selfish, adj. Devoid of consideration for the selfishness of others."
"Politics, n. A strife of interests masquerading as a contest of principles. The conduct of public affairs for private advantage."

Re:Good to lose (1)

AndyCanfield (700565) | about 2 months ago | (#47529385)

You are good; he is a monster. In order to devour him you must become a greater monster than he is. After you have consumed him, the world still has one monster in it (you), but it is a bigger monster than the one it had previously. And now, as a monster, you are hungry, and we must play the game all over again. Who will step forward to become a triple-sized monster to devour you?

Share everything you do with the NSA - they are monster killers.

Re:Good to lose (1)

Nephandus (2953269) | about 2 months ago | (#47529723)

There is no good. There is only power. Initiation of force is the issue, but political bullshit already loaded that. Monsters ironically were originally juxtaposed with heroes primarily in that heroes were prettier to humans. Most were overprivileged douche-nozzles as many monsters were just hermits from an older world that occasionally got in the way of some king or mob's plans. Why submit yourself to psychotic abusers, if you have any other choice? You're not a better person for being their pretentious slave but increasingly less of a person. Ironically, the NSA are monsters making monsters in service of the worst monsters the world has ever seen. Serve them or theirs and you're a monster too, just a sniveling little toady bitch on the bottom, another proud cog in the growing totalitarian machine.br"Sometimes peace is another word for surrender."

I noticed this before (1)

kizh (3682261) | about 2 months ago | (#47538529)

in one game (mmo) I played you had a quest to release 4 prisoners from this evil guy, there were 5 prison cells though. Its one of those quest you would repeat every 3 days or so when it came off cooldown. Everytime I would release that last prisoner even though it had no actual purpose in completing the quest. It made me ponder about empathy. I asked if anyone else does this and got a mixed response of answers. Some did, some didn't. *note: numbers might be a little off but story is true
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