What Lies Beyond: Doorways in Gaming
June 10, 2013 Page 1 of 6
Event Segmentation Theory
As the game industry matures, and gamers age with it, more of us are likely to have had this peculiar experience: we need to do something in another room; we go there; and by the time we arrive, we've completely forgotten what we intended to do.
It turns out that the human brain has a bit of an I/O bug when it comes to how memories are formed, a phenomenon explored by a number of recent scientific studies. A paper called Event Segmentation Theory (Zacks, Speer, Swallow, Braver, & Reynolds, 2007; summarized here) models our memory system in terms of "working memory" and "event boundaries."
Dr. Jeffrey M. Zacks and his team theorize that human short-term memory storage compresses experience to save space and energy, filling in the gaps with predictions and assumptions based on our expectations. For instance, if we put one shoe on, or watch a video of someone else doing so, we tend to assume that the other shoe was also put on after we subsequently "cut" to a memory of leaving the room.
Psychologists have recognized for some time that humans automatically fill in visual gaps -- we don't truly remember everything we "see," because the brain feels free to record the broad outlines of an image, making reasonable assumptions and even inventing details as those memories are processed, rehashed and stored. Zacks' theory expands this understanding to the realm of time, suggesting that we also organize our memories based on "event boundaries" -- we conclude that this event we remember happened, so therefore some other predictable events must have happened before the next event we actually remember occurred.
Most of the time this mnemonic shortcut works reliably -- though magicians and con artists are skilled at exploiting it -- and we're able to keep a mental record of recent events that's acceptably accurate. But the human brain seems to suffer an occasional bug when it comes to processing doorways, portals, gateways, and other physical borders -- these are major event boundaries as far as our working memory is concerned, and when we pass through them, the brain tends to clear our working memory out altogether. The "it isn't just you" school of scientific study lends some comfort here -- the study Walking through doorways causes forgetting: Further explorations (Radvansky, Krawietz, Tamplin, 2011; pdf here) confirm that this phenomenon exists.
Speculation runs rampant as to the underlying cause -- in evolutionary terms, it could be that human beings living a nomadic, tribally oriented lifestyle rarely encountered major physical boundaries. Good evidence suggests that we are an exploration-prone species, spreading across the planet in a relatively short span of time. And as we crossed from familiar territory into new lands with new dangers and opportunities, it may have been useful to abandon assumptions, reset awareness, and make ourselves ready for anything to happen. Our world has changed faster than we have -- our aging hardware still works great when we're leaving the Serengeti or crossing the Bering Land Bridge, but it's a bit of a handicap in the modern world, when our systems decide to shift context as we walk from the living room into the kitchen.
Earlier work by Dr. Radvansky in 2006 studied and confirmed this as a real-world phenomenon; the 2011 study confirms that it also occurs in a virtual environment. This suggests that the "doorway reset" is indeed a fundamental brain issue common to human beings, and one that applies equally to artificial worlds.
What does all this mean for the art of game design? One important takeaway is that human beings are not very hard to fool; at some fundamental level, our brains readily accept a virtual world as it if were real, even though it is devoid of reality cues like air movement and odors, and the lighting may not behave the way it does in the real world. The basic mapping circuits that enable us to learn our way around a neighborhood kick in just as they do in real life. And doorways play a part in our understanding and modeling of these artificial environments, and the events we experience there, just as they do in the real world.
Long before these studies were published, of course, game designers recognized the significance of doors in human experience. There's a natural inclination to use them as boundaries, and they are often technically convenient. In this article, we're going to take a look at some specific examples, and see how this new understanding of doorways may apply to their use and abuse in the art of video games.
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