Electronic Thesis and Dissertation Repository

Thesis Format

Integrated Article


Master of Science




Culham, Jody C.


Using functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI), I examined whether video games could evoke similar neural signatures as real actions (specifically, activation contralateral to the hand performing an action) and whether brain activation depended on causal control with closed-loop feedback. During Play runs, right-handed participants used their right or left hand on a gamepad to control a virtual right or left hand to move an object. During React runs, participants used the gamepad to follow actions without control of viewed actions. During Watch runs, participants passively viewed actions. Activation in was stronger in the hemisphere contralateral (vs. ipsilateral) to the virtual hand, particularly for the right hemisphere (left hand). Moreover, having control over actions (Play > React) increased sensorimotor activity, whereas, a lack of control (React > Play) increased association cortex activity. These results suggest video games hold potential for neuroimaging research, particularly under active control with closed-loop visual feedback.

Summary for Lay Audience

Although it is important to study how the human brain controls actions, neuroimaging of real actions in a brain scanner is difficult. I examined whether video games can serve as a better approach for studying actions than existing methods in the scanner. Specifically, this study investigated whether controlling the actions of a human avatar can activate the brain similarly to performing the same actions in real life. Participants could either use their left or right hand on a gamepad to control an avatar’s left or right hand in the video game. Moreover, participants engaged with the video game in three ways. First, participants’ used the gamepad to control the actions of the avatar. Second, participants used the gamepad to mimic the actions of the avatar. Third, participants did not use the gamepad and simply watched the avatar’s actions. The results from this study suggest that whether a hand looks like a left or right hand affects both brain activity and behaviour. As such, when the avatar performed actions with its left hand, there was increased brain activation related to reaching actions. Moreover, participants were less accurate at controlling a left avatar hand than a right avatar hand. Importantly, increased brain activation and poorer game performance associated with avatar left-hand actions were unaffected by the controlling hand used (left vs right hand on the gamepad). Additionally, when participants had control over the avatar’s actions, there was increased brain activation relating to actions. When participants did not have control over the actions there was increased brain activation relating to cognition. Overall, the results suggest that video games in which participants have control over a realistic human body, can be used as a new way to study actions at a level more similarly to real actions than other methods.