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Let Me See Your Brain
by Neil Sorens on 03/17/11 04:38:00 am   Expert Blogs   Featured Blogs

The following blog post, unless otherwise noted, was written by a member of Gamasutra’s community.
The thoughts and opinions expressed are those of the writer and not Gamasutra or its parent company.


Intuition, observation, focus testing, play metrics, experience...all of these improve our ability as designers to create entertaining games.  However, I often wish I had a lab where I could run scientific experiments that gather data on the physical and chemical responses in players' brains.

For example, on a recent plane trip, I found myself pondering the differences between video games and board games.  I noted that while some board games and video games are similar in nature, video games are better able to put the player into a fantasy role (soldier, wizard, captain, etc.).  Without a computer to create a detailed simulation around that role, board games have fewer tools to fully realize those roles.

I then thought about what kind of challenges are most satisfying in a video game that does put the player in a fantasy role.  Perhaps they are the challenges that increase the player's immersion into that role? 

At that point, I began to think about challenges more generally.  How do our brains react (physiologically)  when we complete a challenge? And how does that change if the game does/does not recognize that completion? And how does it change if the game provides a reward? And what happens when the player fails a challenge? Several challenges? Consecutive and periodic? What about different types of challenges: estimation, planning, observation, memory, coordination, motor learning?

And then of course I launched into the fantasies of brain wave scanners coming standard with the latest gaming system, allowing us to alter the game based on the player's mental state instead of relying on crude gauges such as gameplay success and failure.  And then compiling that brain data into a large database that allowed us to steer players towards games that players with similar response profiles enjoyed.

And yes, I am interested in what psychology has to say, too.  In fact, I often look at MMOs as big psychological experiments, where World of Warcraft is the one where the guy never wants to leave the comfy chair and Everquest was the Stanford Prison Experiment.  It is certainly interesting to watch how human nature manifests itself in worlds with different parameters than our own.  

However, I'd rather get right into hacking the brain directly instead of going through the psychology API.  Unfortunately, not many of the experiments I've read about in this field pertain to the art of game design - if you know of some or are doing some, I would certainly love to know more about them!


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Tim Carter
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Manipulation is known as "formula" in art. It's the kiss of death to creativity.

Carlo Delallana
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To be fair Tim, I don't think that Neil is proposing that this is the only tool that would be used. As designers of experiences we benefit from the wealth of research and available information out there, especially experiments in psychology and stimuli response. At the end of the day these are just tools. I could buy out the entire hardware section of my local Home Depot and I still wouldn't be any more handy around the house than I am right now (much to the dismay of my wife).

"With great power comes great responsibility!"

Designers wield an extraordinary amount of power when it comes to creating emotionally engaging experiences for the player. My biggest fear would be the people, who have no passion for design, would use these tools to push an agenda or worse create an environment of control.

There is an implied trust between designer and player. The relationship plays out in the game worlds that we create that our players enter freely. These tools must enhance and not manipulate. They must engage and not enslave. The data should be used in service of our players FIRST and not the other way around.

Neil Sorens
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I agree with you somewhat, Tim. For example, composition of modern orchestral music is absurdly mathematical and hence has lost the beauty of the classical variety. I'll be the first to say that I dislike games that are built around focus tests, as they tend to be overly familiar and predictable and devoid of inspiration.

However, I think that in the case of low-level game design, where creativity is not a major factor, it would be nice to have a better understanding of the hard science behind consumption of video games rather than relying on pseudo-sciences such as "ludology" and imperfect feedback.

Edit: I'd also like to add that I absolutely hate games that rely on compulsion rather than true enjoyment to hook players. I think it's unethical game design. What I'd like to have is some scientific understanding of the difference in how the brain responds to each of the two, and the ability to apply that knowledge to avoid inadvertently designing elements that turn out to cause the same type of compulsion-based response.

Sting Newman
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Doing experiments would just easily help you classify different gamers, once you understood what elements of a game drove the excitement/adrenaline you wouldn't need to go back to them. Take the reactions to Dragon age 2 for instance, there is a divergence between those who are there for the CINEMATICS/STORY and those who are there for the battle system/loot.

I can tell you right away why many games are crappy - games are aesthetic experiences, they combine the excitement of movies with the ability to interact with the environment instead of it being totally static. One of the things about DA:O that you'll notice is that the environments are huge and static and there isn't actually much that is interesting going on in them. The first time seeing them are awe inspiring but games are meant to be played not looked at. DA:O in my mind is the pinnacle of where too much time is spent on art and not enough time is spent on core mechanics like the feel of battle, their animations, etc. (i.e. 'play').

Another one of my criticisms of DA:O for instance was just that the game moved along so ploddingly, travel is really really boring aspect of most games it's why Diablo for instance made sure they had scrolls of TOWN PORTAL, no one likes having to run all the way back to town to sell stuff. Both Dragon age origins, and DA2 had this issue of not having quick-travel spells like town portal or 'gates' to warp like in other games. I really blame MMO's for this, MMO's have set game design back 10 years with forced cooldowns on warp-home spells and forced travel times like in world of warcraft.

Many games developers never learn where the excitement in their game comes from, the truth is the art/animation and sound design is often critical. It's why DA2's combat feels more exciting then that of Dragon age origins. The manipulation of the characters and their lengthly recovery times from animations like falling down in DA:O for instance always bugged me it really slowed down the pacing of the game.

The art in DA:O was great but the actual animations were 'too real' and very boring, all of the mo-capped animations just come off as fake, you know they are reading those animations directly into the computer and that is not exciting. Human beings cannot DO cool looking moves do to the physics of their bodies, this is why fantastical 'superhero' kinds of animation is way more exciting. (take god of war for instance). Krato's blades do not in anyway move in a realistic manner.

warren blyth
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I think useful brain measuring isn't coming in the next 5 years (so far, it seems like too high a percentage of users have troubles with neurosky and emotiv. At conferences I've seen both product lines totally work for some, and totally fail for others. I have the unscientific impression it fell somewhere between 40% and 80% of all users who've tried it).

In the meantime there are many other tools available to gather feedback and use it (both to enhance in-game experience, and to report back to developer for improvement). (there are articles on this, but I'm thinking of: in game telemetry hooks, post-game surveys, Galvanic skin response, pulse, eye tracking, head/posture tracking, breathing). When people stop thinking of this as cold creepy science testing, and start thinking of it as part of game design - shit is going to get crazy. (can chat bots lead to better post-game surveys? could a mobile app be used to record/report gameplayer video? could in-game characters be designed to subtely ask the player why they did something? etc.)

* I'm sold on the Valve kool-aid that this is the future. I'd even go so far as to say the next generation of game machines will likely "suprise" everyone by focusing on incorporating a lot of biometric trickery. (Nintendo's vitality sensor just needs to be redesigned into some sleek metal pads in the wiimote - to suddenly make a lot of sense).

In the meantime,

I'm very interested in trying to develop a open system (cheap, experimental) to push the idea forward for indie game developers.

* I work in online education (developing quick focused games for Oregon State University's Ecampus courses), and am currently putting together a proposal to build a "game feedback" station here in our main library, so every student on campus could stop by and play our learning games/exercises. My main goal is to explore all the known biometric tricks, and start building a baseline for measuring effectiveness and enjoyment.

While both EA and Valve gave very interesting talks about biometrics at GDC, I was left with the impression they were both leveraging a lot of unique internal resources (specialized personnel, expensive devices). If we really want the industry to embrace the idea that biometrics are The-Next-Big-Thing, there needs to be some system everyone can use and discuss openly.

* I'll try to contact you directly, Neil (and would encourage anyone who is interested in open collaboration to contact me directly).