The tagline of this blog, ‘game design: integrating mind and machine’ is admittedly a bit pompous and vainglorious. It conjures images of cyborgs or, worse, raises the spectre of Kurzweil’s singularity hypothesis, a day when machine and human intelligence meld (I’ll avoid discussion of this). What is meant here is considerably simpler. The experience of playing a video game, or for that matter interacting with any technology, is already an integration of mind and machine. The point in this blog is to recognize this explicitly and to take into account how the mind (or brain) component might dictate design on the machine side.
At risk of pointing out the obvious, a game exist in two places and forms: in the world as an object and in the player’s head. You can’t have one without the other. Every aspect of the game in the world is inert and meaningless until it is processed by a player’s brain. It is the brain that that makes a bunch of otherwise meaningless pixels into a perception of an object or a world of objects. It is the brain that attaches significance to these perceptions—as clues, things to avoid, things to seek, reward. It is the brain that acquires a set of actions to emit in response to these stimuli. And, most importantly, it is the brain that assigns motivational salience to stimuli in the game, bringing the game to life. The brain, not the graphic artist, animates the game.
Game design focuses primarily on the machine. . . what’s the mechanics, what kind of graphics, what constraints, menus, levels, motivators, reward, challenges, game flow, aesthetics. . . basically creating a set of objects that brains like to engage. And notably, designers are quite good at this. But games are expanding beyond entertainment, expanding beyond the traditional gamer crowd and trying to infiltrate a lot of nooks and crannies of our lives, so-called gamification. As this happens, many of the tricks of the trade—the objects that have worked so well in the past—may falter and new design principles may have to emerge to tailor game design to all those different nooks, crannies, audiences and purposes. Deriving principles and ideas by focusing on the game ‘in the players head,’ that is, the neural and psychological processes that bring a game to life and make it meaningful to an individual, seems like a reasonable place to start. It’s probably no more humble than cyborg design, but imminently more human.