Summary: The brains of people playing online video games synchronize, even when there is a physical distance between the players.
Source: University of Helsinki
Online gaming and other types of online social interaction have become increasingly popular during the pandemic, and increased remote working and investments in social technology will likely see this trend continue.
Research has shown that people’s brains activate in a similar and simultaneous way during social interaction. Such inter-brain neural synchronization has been linked with empathy and cooperation in face-to-face situations. However, its role in online, remote interaction has remained unknown.
A study conducted at the University of Helsinki investigated brainwave synchronization while pairs of subjects played a game in which they controlled a racing car together. The subjects were physically separated in two soundproof rooms. The study investigated the connection of synchronization with interaction and performance in the game.
Based on the findings, inter-brain synchronization occurs during cooperative online gaming, and increased synchrony in the alpha and gamma frequency bands is connected with better performance. The connection between performance and gamma synchronization could be observed continuously over time.
“We were able to show that inter-brain phase synchronization can occur without the presence of the other person. This opens up a possibility to investigate the role of this social brain mechanism in online interaction,” says Doctoral Researcher Valtteri Wikström.
Towards better online interaction
Our social brain has developed in face-to-face communication, and increased screen time has caused concern especially among parents, teachers, and legislators.
“If we can build interactive digital experiences which activate fundamental mechanisms of empathy, it can lead to better social relationships, well-being, and productivity online,” says Project Manager Katri Saarikivi.
According to Wikström, measurements of physiological synchronization and cooperative performance are potential ways to evaluate the quality of social interaction. Finding out which aspects of the interfaces promote understanding and connectedness can drive the development in a positive direction.
“This study shows that inter-brain synchronization happens also during cooperative online gaming, and that it can be reliably measured. Developing aspects in games that lead to increased synchronization and empathy can have a positive impact even outside of gaming,” Wikström adds.
Inter-brain synchronization occurs without physical co-presence during cooperative online gaming
Inter-brain synchronization during social interaction has been linked with several positive phenomena, including closeness, cooperation, prosociality, and team performance.
However, the temporal dynamics of inter-brain synchronization during collaboration are not yet fully understood. Furthermore, with collaboration increasingly happening online, the dependence of inter-brain phase synchronization of oscillatory activity on physical presence is an important but understudied question. In this study, physically isolated participants performed a collaborative coordination task in the form of a cooperative multiplayer game.
We measured EEG from 42 subjects working together as pairs in the task. During the measurement, the only interaction between the participants happened through on-screen movement of a racing car, controlled by button presses of both participants working with distinct roles, either controlling the speed or the direction of the car.
Pairs working together in the task were found to have elevated neural coupling in the alpha, beta, and gamma frequency bands, compared to performance matched false pairs. Higher gamma synchrony was associated with better momentary performance within dyads and higher alpha synchrony was associated with better mean performance across dyads.
These results are in line with previous findings of increased inter-brain synchrony during interaction, and show that phase synchronization of oscillatory activity occurs during online real-time joint coordination without any physical co-presence or video and audio connection. Synchrony decreased during a playing session, but was found to be higher during the second session compared to the first.
The novel paradigm, developed for the measurement of real-time collaborative performance, demonstrates that changes in inter-brain EEG phase synchrony can be observed continuously during interaction.