Bennett Foddy's free browser games are the exercise your brain needs

This video game designer's creations have been said to work "neurological magic."

Photo Credit: Foddy.net
  • Video game designer Bennett Foddy's games hack players' neurology to allow them to embody the subjects on the screen.
  • Foddy plays with perceptions of sensation to explore how gamers "become" the digital characters.
  • Research indicates that video games can change how our brains perform and their structural makeup. For instance, enhancing several kinds of focus.

A gaming surge has begun. Steam, an online gaming marketplace, has seen record numbers of concurrent players over the past week, landline networks in Italy have seen a 70 percent increase in traffic, and console games are drawing millions more, as the world adjusts to life at home. Since we're all locked in until the end of the coronavirus crisis, these are the free games your brain might be craving in the midst of social isolation.

Bennett Foddy’s games

New York-based game designer Bennett Foddy's programs are about the neurological sorcery in gaming that allows players to embody the subjects on the screen. Foddy's creations, many of which are free to play via the flash-enabled internet browser of your choice, are not overly intense or for "hard-core gamers." They're light-hearted, addictive, and have limited controls that are easy for non-gamers to pick up on, though mastery is not so simple. The gaming wizard's latest creation, Get On Top, is a game hidden in his 2016 gaming time capsule Sportsfriends. The two-player browser version uses your keyboard for input, with arrow keys controlling one figure and AWD controlling the other. "It's designed to sit with one other person and play for hours," the website explains. (Learn how to enable Flash here).


QWOP
, one of Foddy's more popular creations, is a simple and diabolically addictive game about sprinting down the straightaway on a track. It can be played on PC or a smartphone mobile browser. The screen shows a man lined up to race the 100 meter dash, and you must press the QWOP keys to manipulate his left and right calf and thigh muscles to (hopefully) propel him forward as fast as you can. (The cult classic game was even featured on the U.S. version of The Office on the sitcom's season 9 premiere.) In 2012, it was updated so that it could be played with two people at once.

The phenomenology of gaming

GIRP climbing game

Photo Credit: Foddy.net

In a 2011 piece for WIRED UK, Mark Brown wrote that Foddy's games are about "turning gaming's heavily abstracted and automated actions – like running forward or scaling a perilous cliff face – into brutal simulations of the most intense micromanagement."

For Foddy, it's about playing with perceptions of sensation to explore how gamers come to embody the digital characters in the game.

"When you play a [video game]," Foddy explained, "as long as there is a very short time between your formation of an intention to act and something happening on screen, there's a kind of neurological magic which makes you feel like you are the character, rather than just controlling a little guy on a screen." QWOP is unique in that it does this by making a "deliberate disconnect between your intentions and the character's actions."

Another of Foddy's games, GIRP, enhances the experience of embodiment. The game, whose hero is a rock climber, turns your keyboard into a cliff face. The player needs to finger-tip grip the keyboard as if he or she is white-knuckle clinging to a cliff. In this way, when you play this game you phenomenologically become the daring climber as your consciousness moves through the electronic space in the virtual reality of the game.

Foddy, who studied addiction at Oxford, designed GIRP to hijack the neurological reward-system by allowing players to set their own achievable goals in the game. WIRED's Brown described GIRP as "maddeningly compulsive."

How video games affect the brain

Video games can change how our brains perform and their structural makeup. A 2017 study published in Frontiers in Human Neuroscience showed that video game players display enhancements in several types of attention such as sustained attention (the ability to focus on an activity over a long period of time), divided attention (focusing on multiple pieces of information at once), and selective attention (the process of focusing on a particular object in the environment for a certain period of time). Moreover, the areas of the brain that play a role in attention are more efficient in video game players as compared with non-gamers. Gamers also don't require as much activation to stay focused on demanding tasks.

There is evidence that gaming increases the size and competence of regions of the brain that are responsible for visuospatial skills, or an individual's ability to identify visual and spatial relationships among objects (for example, hitting a ball zooming towards you with a baseball bat before it smacks you in the face). The 2017 research also suggests that video games that require players think spatially can increase the gray matter in the right hippocampus.

So go ahead and game the plague away. You can find Foddy's games for free here.

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The surprise reason sleep-deprivation kills lies in the gut

New research establishes an unexpected connection.

Reactive oxygen species (ROS) accumulate in the gut of sleep-deprived fruit flies, one (left), seven (center) and ten (right) days without sleep.

Image source: Vaccaro et al, 2020/Harvard Medical School
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  • Surprisingly, the direct cause seems to be a buildup of Reactive Oxygen Species in the gut produced by sleeplessness.
  • When the buildup is neutralized, a normal lifespan is restored.

We don't have to tell you what it feels like when you don't get enough sleep. A night or two of that can be miserable; long-term sleeplessness is out-and-out debilitating. Though we know from personal experience that we need sleep — our cognitive, metabolic, cardiovascular, and immune functioning depend on it — a lack of it does more than just make you feel like you want to die. It can actually kill you, according to study of rats published in 1989. But why?

A new study answers that question, and in an unexpected way. It appears that the sleeplessness/death connection has nothing to do with the brain or nervous system as many have assumed — it happens in your gut. Equally amazing, the study's authors were able to reverse the ill effects with antioxidants.

The study, from researchers at Harvard Medical School (HMS), is published in the journal Cell.

An unexpected culprit

The new research examines the mechanisms at play in sleep-deprived fruit flies and in mice — long-term sleep-deprivation experiments with humans are considered ethically iffy.

What the scientists found is that death from sleep deprivation is always preceded by a buildup of Reactive Oxygen Species (ROS) in the gut. These are not, as their name implies, living organisms. ROS are reactive molecules that are part of the immune system's response to invading microbes, and recent research suggests they're paradoxically key players in normal cell signal transduction and cell cycling as well. However, having an excess of ROS leads to oxidative stress, which is linked to "macromolecular damage and is implicated in various disease states such as atherosclerosis, diabetes, cancer, neurodegeneration, and aging." To prevent this, cellular defenses typically maintain a balance between ROS production and removal.

"We took an unbiased approach and searched throughout the body for indicators of damage from sleep deprivation," says senior study author Dragana Rogulja, admitting, "We were surprised to find it was the gut that plays a key role in causing death." The accumulation occurred in both sleep-deprived fruit flies and mice.

"Even more surprising," Rogulja recalls, "we found that premature death could be prevented. Each morning, we would all gather around to look at the flies, with disbelief to be honest. What we saw is that every time we could neutralize ROS in the gut, we could rescue the flies." Fruit flies given any of 11 antioxidant compounds — including melatonin, lipoic acid and NAD — that neutralize ROS buildups remained active and lived a normal length of time in spite of sleep deprivation. (The researchers note that these antioxidants did not extend the lifespans of non-sleep deprived control subjects.)

fly with thought bubble that says "What? I'm awake!"

Image source: Tomasz Klejdysz/Shutterstock/Big Think

The experiments

The study's tests were managed by co-first authors Alexandra Vaccaro and Yosef Kaplan Dor, both research fellows at HMS.

You may wonder how you compel a fruit fly to sleep, or for that matter, how you keep one awake. The researchers ascertained that fruit flies doze off in response to being shaken, and thus were the control subjects induced to snooze in their individual, warmed tubes. Each subject occupied its own 29 °C (84F) tube.

For their sleepless cohort, fruit flies were genetically manipulated to express a heat-sensitive protein in specific neurons. These neurons are known to suppress sleep, and did so — the fruit flies' activity levels, or lack thereof, were tracked using infrared beams.

Starting at Day 10 of sleep deprivation, fruit flies began dying, with all of them dead by Day 20. Control flies lived up to 40 days.

The scientists sought out markers that would indicate cell damage in their sleepless subjects. They saw no difference in brain tissue and elsewhere between the well-rested and sleep-deprived fruit flies, with the exception of one fruit fly.

However, in the guts of sleep-deprived fruit flies was a massive accumulation of ROS, which peaked around Day 10. Says Vaccaro, "We found that sleep-deprived flies were dying at the same pace, every time, and when we looked at markers of cell damage and death, the one tissue that really stood out was the gut." She adds, "I remember when we did the first experiment, you could immediately tell under the microscope that there was a striking difference. That almost never happens in lab research."

The experiments were repeated with mice who were gently kept awake for five days. Again, ROS built up over time in their small and large intestines but nowhere else.

As noted above, the administering of antioxidants alleviated the effect of the ROS buildup. In addition, flies that were modified to overproduce gut antioxidant enzymes were found to be immune to the damaging effects of sleep deprivation.

The research leaves some important questions unanswered. Says Kaplan Dor, "We still don't know why sleep loss causes ROS accumulation in the gut, and why this is lethal." He hypothesizes, "Sleep deprivation could directly affect the gut, but the trigger may also originate in the brain. Similarly, death could be due to damage in the gut or because high levels of ROS have systemic effects, or some combination of these."

The HMS researchers are now investigating the chemical pathways by which sleep-deprivation triggers the ROS buildup, and the means by which the ROS wreak cell havoc.

"We need to understand the biology of how sleep deprivation damages the body so that we can find ways to prevent this harm," says Rogulja.

Referring to the value of this study to humans, she notes,"So many of us are chronically sleep deprived. Even if we know staying up late every night is bad, we still do it. We believe we've identified a central issue that, when eliminated, allows for survival without sleep, at least in fruit flies."

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