An Analytical Discussion of the Industry, Culture, Progress and Nature of Video Games.

August 17, 2006

Perceptual Pleasure and the Game:
A Response to American Scientist Magazine

During a recent trip to Wal-Mart I dropped by the magazine aisle to see what selection of game magazines were currently available. I was also starting to worry that my EGM was getting pinched by my mailman, so I wanted to see what issue was on the shelf. During my perusal, I noticed the ultimately misleading cover of the May-June issue of American Scientist magazine, on which a boy is playing what seems to be Desert Strike (of all the games in the world? Desert Strike?) next to the words: “The Allure of Fast-Paced Pictures.”

I say ultimately misleading because the article is less concerned with “fast-paced” pictures as it is with “interesting” pictures.

The article is also unable to explain why people play video games - even if it shows a child playing a video game on the cover - because the discovered reward mechanism is not engaged by repetitive behavior.

Or so they say.

The gist of the “Perceptual Pleasure and the Brain,” written by Irving Biederman and Edward A Vessel, is this: The brain is split into many different parts that computes, registers, and digests visual information. When activated by visual data, these brain sections become receptive to endomorphins – a feel-good chemical present naturally in the brain that, when taken in by opioid receptors, gives a sense of pleasure and decreases pain. When new visual information enters the brain it is immediately evaluated for qualities such as shape, contour, color, and texture. The more immediately complex, the more endomorphins are received – giving humans a biological drive to seek out complex visual information.

Once the information is taken in, however, the information is associated with memories (or knowledge) in the parahippocampal (the bluish-purple) area. Upon first viewing, the mu-opioid receptors are active in the areas mentioned in the paragraph above, digesting color, texture, shade, etc. Upon a second viewing, however, endomorphins are not as readily received in this area; that part of the brain becomes bored with it. The parahippocampal area, in contrast, lights up with opioid reception as it digests and associates the new visual information with memories. If there are no memories or similarity in the new visual data to past visual data – and this is key – then the new visual information is not processed and endomorphins are not received. This mechanism, the authors argue, is the corner-stone of a biological-based drive for humans to not only gather new information, but to incorporate it culturally. This new knowledge, they argue, is highly valuable and bestowed upon non-human ancestors with this mechanism an edge in reproductive success.

After the information is understood, which happens around the fourth or fifth viewing according to their tests, opioid reception decreases to a point that the brain is better off moving on to something else.

It’s a powerful theory for why we find some things more interesting than others, but the authors admit defeat when it comes to video games, which, “are replete with repetitive perceptual inputs that seem to be endlessly amusing to young people.” They even equate playing video games to a child asking for a bedtime story to be read repeatedly. Their best guess is that the child’s mind lacks comprehension of the material. Little do they know that they’ve already figured it out – they just don’t know it yet.

First, they need to realize that games – video or otherwise – are played by all cultures of the world and by people of all ages. These scientists have probably played some themselves. Say, Windows Solitaire while they’re waiting for lab results?

They then need to realize that during all of these games, whether it be Monopoly, mahjong, or Madden, there are seemingly repetitive perceptual inputs, but in actuality there are different variables that make each turn (or, in many video games, moments) different from any that had taken place before. This is what the parahippocampal feeds on! New information that is only made meaningful through the aggregation and combination with previous visual and auditory knowledge!

Sure, the last time you passed Go, you only had a house on Baltic. But now you’ve got some cash – and you could probably trade that Get Out of Jail Free card – and put up a few more. Or a hotel! And what of Park Place? Oh, the possibilities!

But, of course, to an uneducated observer, you’re moving a boot around a square board while counting money. “Snooze. How could anyone enjoy this boring, repetitive game?” says the scientist.

And it is the same, if not more frenetic, with video games: Watching health. Ammo. Time left. Lives left. Coins collected. Which squad member is breaching that door. Each second is new event! And the brain is incorporating it with past events, planning a future for you and your character! At this pace, your brain is being bombarded with not only interested images (activating the areas interested in color, shape, etc.) but also the parahippocampal, which is associating new information with old knowledge. If the mechanism identified by these scientists is true, then your brain is a endomorphin ecstasy-fueled-nude-rave hub of activity! “Endlessly amusing” – hell yeah it is!

To support this argument: Have you ever played a game to the point of boredom? I have, and now I know why I was bored with it: I had seen all permutations of possible activity. Could it be that my parahippocampal was no longer associating any new data with old memories because there was no new data. No new data means no new associations. No associations means no endomorphins. No endomorphins mean, “Yawn. I need a new game.” The game, in the words of the article’s authors, had “clicked.” Don’t believe me? Talk to someone preparing for a speed run. Or someone playing 99 Nights.

Of course, the scientists game themselves the answer to their video game conundrum on the first page of the article, saying, “infovore behavior [their term for seeking out new information to stimulate the brain] is activated only when other motives are not engaged. When people are trying to satisfy a need for food, are avoiding harm or are otherwise involved in some goal-oriented behavior, then the infovorous instincts take a less active role.”

The potential argument: “If your character is avoiding harm or otherwise involved in some goal-oriented behavior, then the game-player’s mind is not interested in gathering information. Inforvorous behavior is stopped before it can even start. Game playing is merely an activity in twitch motor movement and control.”

But even this is incorrect. It may be true that infovorous behavior is challenged by other motives, but that’s where the challenge in games lie. Your brain has to fight its natural urge to shut down. It has to strain to take in information, and associate it with past knowledge. And it has to do it quickly, or the zombie is going to attach itself to your neck and start eating your flesh. It’s called “difficulty” and the rush of successfully escaping threat while mastering new information can be invigorating.

My suggestions to Biederman and Vessel: You don’t give yourselves enough credit. You figured it out. But instead of scoffing at games, become an anthropologist for a day and play one. You can call it “multi-disciplinary research” and you might just learn something.


August 18th, 2006
Aaron Is Grumpy When He Is Ignored: A Poor, Unfounded Analysis of the Gaming Audience and Its Problems

So my posting for this week was supposed to be one of my usual diatribes about the inadequacies of the video game industry. The theme was how the new celebrity class of video game designers (Jaffe, Blezinski, et al.) do a great deal of fancy talking about the artistic and conceptual changes they are going to be putting into their next games, and how their talk is largely that, just talk, and that if there was substance in what they were saying it hasn't shown up in the games yet. This went into larger talk about how art is very easily recognizable these days, but it's harder to actually make it than talk about it, or else we'd all be artists. As I was writing it I was sounding more pompous and arrogant than usual (which is saying something) and so, rather than risk the scorn of all three of you who read this space with any sort of persistance, I decided to put that away for a while, and try on something a little looser and more enjoyable. That something takes the form of a whiny and personal complaint: If anything is holding video games back, it's the audience.

I'd like, firstly, to say my complaint about the audience is not about that drooling, pimply, lonely, zombie-like hoard that would certainly pwn me if I played things like Counter-Strike or Halo online. To that group I will simply taunt them in the way that I know hurts the most: You may have Halo, but I have a girlfriend. She is smart and attractive, and, unlike yours, is not from Canada and fictional. But really, I'd like to talk to the members of the audience who are smarter than that, or at least consider themselves to be. I'd like to say that you (metaphorcal "you" of course, to the two of you that are actually still reading I would like to give my thanks) aren't helping the industry either. And I'll tell you why. When I made an interesting point, you ignored me. This is what made me whiny. So I blame you. To explain:

A recent thread on 1up's boards was created to discuss Luke Smith's insistence on calling the Wii a peripheral, due to the lack of a jump in graphics from the Game Cube, and a bit because of the Wii's gimmicky nature, I suppose. The discussion started off with some substance and some points being made, but quickly (inevitably?) devolved into a nitpicky, overly technical back and forth about the specifications and capabilities of each system. It was to the point where each poster would simply copy and paste the previous poster's post, except with the new poster's points under the previous poster's points in a different color, all in high told-you-so fashion. I decided to weigh in (at the bottom) , crafting two well thought out paragraphs about how graphics can't improve forever, and that graphical power is empty without content that has style and substance, and that is what gamers should be demanding, instead of haggling over 1080dpi or Blue-Ray-Tooth-Butt and it's functions. It's stuff I've said before, but it was a point that needed to be made. Call me naive, but I had hoped that it would stimulate discussion, maybe get the thread back on track. I hoped it would end the petty bickering, if only temporarily. I hoped it would do something.

But that isn't what happened.

It was ignored.

Completely ignored.

What I said was rudely and ignominiously passed by, like a fat girl at prom. No eye contact, no acknowledgment. Not even a response to tell me I was a n00b. And here we reach our problem. Beyond the pwners mentioned above, there is another class of gamer who treats our little world (and I'm a member of it as much as you, douche) like an exclusive club/debate society. To prove you are a member of that club you steel yourself and in the squeakiest, geekiest voice possible you rattle off the arcane and esoteric schematical information necessary to prove you're worthy. If you don't, and actually have differing opinion and not different specifications to present, you seem to largely be treated as some sort of pariah, some untouchable, that crazy guy at the bus stop who just wants to talk. I'm not saying what I wrote was of world-shattering or bowel-clenching importance. But it was substantive, and some attention would have been nice. Wahhh. 

You see, this class of gamer is more annoying because they have the air of substance, when in fact what they say has merely the substance of air. (That's called a chiasmus by the way. How's that for technical knowledge.) This is what makes me, an intelligent and casual gamer who would like to discuss things with his peers, want to chuck the whole thing and run off with something less haughty and uppity, like 17th-century English poetry. They are what keep a lot of people away. Them and graphics whores and all that. They can't enjoy a discussion about games unless they're arguing about them, and what casual gamer wants to argue about games when they'd just like to enjoy them? Who wants to hang around with a crowd that ignores them? Nobody wants to feel like the fat girl at prom. That's something I know all too well. Uh, I mean . . . oh, nevermind.

Thank you. I feel better.

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