Hitting the game design wall
A week long Journey

The Brain Game


“I’m hungry for knowledge about the human mind." -Rich Lemarchand, Lead Game Designer, Naughty Dog

If you listen to game developers talk about their business, common themes emerge. Now that the dust has settled on GDC, I’ve been thinking about what I heard people say last week in San Francisco.

Last year everyone was buzzing about social games, the Zynga juggernaut, and Minecraft. This year, no particular issue dominated - though Minecraft still gets mentioned a lot - but I detected a prevalent thread winding its way through a variety of sessions and casual conversations: your brain. Or perhaps more accurately: your brain on games.

Designers have always been interested in why we play games and what keeps us attached to them. Salen and Zimmerman’s “Rules of Play” analyzes systems, interactivity, and “meaningful play,” among other design principles. Huizinga’s “Homo Ludens” (which predates electronic games by nearly 25 years) discusses play as a fundamental human function. Check out my booklist on the left for more titles devoted to game design.

Better games through Psychology
But lately developers have sharpened their focus on how and why we play, turning to human psychology and brain response mechanisms to better understand what happens to us when we play games. Rich Lemarchand set the tone at GDC with his talk, “Attention, Not Immersion: Making Your Games Better with Psychology and Playtesting, the Uncharted Way.” Lemarchand (notably, a Philosophy and Physics major at Oxford) believes we overvalue “immersion” and “engagement” when what we really want is to grab the player’s attention and hold it for the duration of the game.

Psychology teaches us that no single method can work effectively because attention occurs in different forms. It can happen reflexively (e.g. a loud sound or flash of light), or when something new or different appears. It can also occur when we’re prompted to make a decision, or when the environment itself provokes us to move or think with subtle cues (e.g. thatgamecompany’s Flower and Journey). Lemarchand believes a savvy combination of aesthetics, character stories and narratives, and gameplay systems must be weaved together to function cooperatively and touch each of these attention generators. Leigh Alexander wrote a helpful summary of Lemarchand’s talk for Gamasutra.

Jason VandenBerghe (Creative Director at Ubisoft) continued the theme in his talk “The 5 Domains of Play: Applying Psychology’s Big 5 Motivation Domains to Games.” VandenBerghe presented the OCEAN framework of personality traits - Openness, Conscientiousness, Extraversion, Agreeableness, and Neuroticism - as useful models for matching players with styles of game design. While he acknowledges we can’t always make one-to-one connections between psychology and game design, his own research suggests a link between, for example, Conscientious personality types and players who enjoy games that emphasize Challenge.

The Unconscious Mind
In his micro-talk on Thursday, David Sirlin (Sirlin Games) discussed the power of the unconscious mind, especially in quick-reflex fighting games. He quoted Capcom’s Seth Killian’s observation, “I can learn more about someone from watching ten seconds of them playing Street Fighter than ten hours of them watching an RPG.” Sirlin believes we underestimate the versatility of the unconscious mind. When we think deliberately, we can handle only a few variables at once. “But when there are twelve variables, we do better with unconscious thought,” he noted. The top players in games like Starcraft and Street Fighter rely almost completely such mental processes. Sirlin believes game designers should do more to exploit this potential.

Dave Mark (Intrinsic Algorithm) and Brian Schwab (Blizzard) delivered a talk called “Less A More I: Using Psychology in Game AI,” and called for developers to reject sterile, robotic NPCs. They urged programmers and designers to consider the psychological biases players bring to their experiences and encouraged them to imbue these characters “with simple affects to exploit these expectations,” rendering more believable NPCs.

In a separate talk on player motivation, Scott Rigby from virtual environment think tank Immersyve presented research suggesting the importance of understanding players’ “specific psychological needs and understand the various categories of motivation,” such as autonomy, relatedness, and mastery. Naughty Dog programmer Kaitlyn Burnell picked up on the same three terms in her talk, citing studies that show players connect more with games that leverage these psychological factors.

The Emotional Puppeteer
Finally, the brain was the surprise focus of a famous, and decidedly NON-data-driven veteran of the games industry, composer Marty O’Donnell, best known for his work on the Halo trilogy.

O’Donnell believes the composer is the “Emotional Puppeteer” in games, and Bungie colleague Brandi House has been working with him to unlock how certain types of music provoke specific reactions in players. Through research conducted on Bungie employees, House was able to convince a skeptical O’Donnell that player-focused testing can map how music triggers specific emotional responses.

“Each piece of music has a unique emotional ’fingerprint,’” she observed. Harnessing this information can enable developers to more effectively trigger the responses they hope to provoke in players. “People are complicated,” O’Donnell noted. “Finding a common way of talking about emotions is not easy. We want to give composers some insight into people’s emotions, and we want this to be accurate.”

Quantifying emotional responses to music may strike some (e.g. this writer) as cold-hearted folly, but O’Donnell and House were plugging into a theme that received a lot of attention at this year’s GDC. Something tells me this data-munching genie won’t be put back into his bottle anytime soon.