Video Games: The Neuroanthropology of Interaction

By Daniel Lende 

We’re getting near Christmas, so today I want to talk about something fun—video games.  I also want to make the case over today and tomorrow for video games as a great place to apply neuroanthropology.  Writing these two blogs will also be my lame gift to myself, a way to vicariously enjoy a genre that can be entirely too addictive for me.  No Bioshock for Daniel this Christmas.  I’ve sworn off games until the summer…  (You do know, of course, that addiction is generally characterized by relapse, so if I start writing about Bioshock, Crysis, or The Witcher in the near future, feel free to give me crap about that.) 

This week I read cover-to-cover the new Game Informer, “The World’s #1 Computer and Video Game Magazine.”  In the Connect Opinion piece, Geremy Mustard has written an article “Small is Beautiful” on developing small-sized games for the Xbox Live Arcade.  As he noted, the “development process for XBLA games is not all that different from making any other game—except it’s smaller.”  In particular, the games are capped at 50 megabytes.  “That is not very much space—it is about the same size as just a few minutes of compressed video.” 

Mustard then highlights what he sees as the crucial challenge that this limited size places on the game developer:  

“With smaller file sizes game designers are forced to focus on the true essence of a game. What makes it fun? What makes it unique? Why would I want to play this? These are questions that any design team needs to ask throughout production. When making games for more casual audiences, other questions may include: How fast does the game hook the player? Is it simple to pick up and play? Is it deep enough to play again and again? We found it very helpful to let various types of gamers play the game [Undertow] at different stages of production and watch their reactions. When were they frustrated? Obviously, the more times developers can iterate a game to reduce frustration and increase enjoyment, the more fun that game will be. The fact that everyone on our team still loves playing Undertow tells me that we may have found that elusive fun factor.”

 In other words, the developers are focused on the on-going interactive experience with the game—that is the crucial thing for them to both develop and understand.  They do that by asking themselves questions, having different types of people play to get feedback, and following a certain cultural script they surely have for “the true essence” of a particular type of game.  (On a side note, some companies are also turning to “neuromarketing” to get insight into this process.) 

From my point of view, there are several areas to be examined in the experience of a game: the “fun factor”, experiential immersion, and story.  The “fun factor” is, in many ways, the most important in games.  Some old-time video gamers like to complain on-line about how games were better before all the fancy graphics came along, simply because designers focused on the challenge or fun a game brought.  Getting as many dots as possible in Pac-Man as the ghosts started coming after you faster and faster?  That was fun. 

As Mustard also points out, avoiding frustration is equally important to a fun experience.  People will grind out a level even if they are getting a bit bored.  But getting frustrated?  People give up on that. 

Between fun, frustration, and boredom, there is the crucial aspect of feeling “involved” in the game, that moment-by-moment feedback where your attention is focused on the game and you are wrapped up in what is happening and what you have to do next. 

Neuroanthropologists can study these sorts of experiential factors—fun, frustration, sense of involvement, and so forth.  Video games are a great place to do this.  I’ve also done it with drug addiction, so if you want some guidelines, please check out my 2005 Ethos article. 

Beyond the “fun” factor, the sensory immersion in games has emerged as an increasingly important part of video gaming.  People generally think that graphics drive the immersion with gaming.  But this month’s Game Informer reveals more.  The animation of characters in simulated environments is as crucial as pretty pictures.  For a “compelling effect,” you need “to blend animation with that ragdoll simulation as well and use the physics as an input into the animation system to make it look good.”  What’s a ragdoll you ask?  Animated ragdolls model the human body as separate but connected pieces, much like a soft ragdoll moves in real life.  Why is this important?  Here’s a quote only an action game fan can appreciate: “Producers looked at the value ragdolls added to killing somebody when you were in that [action game] genre and it was really quite satisfying to see these guys fly across, slam into signs, and flop down the other side.”  Ah, the joy. 

And of course there is the sound alongside the graphics.  Here’s a highlight from a preview for a new first-person shooter game Tiberium: “Most games use a canned audio background track that makes it sound like a battle is happening.  But audio visionary Erik Kraber… has put together a new audio system capable of mixing every single shot that’s happening on the screen.  To keep the player from feeling disoriented, a line of sight system will help focus the audio around [the player’s] actions and immediate threats.” 

Another factor increasingly driving immersion is on-line multiplayer, which brings a human dimension to the experience and the sense of involvement. 

But enough about immersion, I’ve got to get on with the story.  And that’s the third element to the overall experience.  “Story,” in my mind, can range from simple to complex.  On the simple side, story can simply be completing the goals and levels of a game.  People will “grind” through the repetitive nature of many games to get that “level up.”  But video games are now reaching what we might consider as full “narrative.”  As Seth Schiesel writes in the New York Times about storytelling and video games (yes, the Times covers games! and Schiesel heaped some praise on Bioshock too!): 

“Story and characters aren’t everything, but these components of narrative have always been the weakest part of video games. For decades games have made up in frenetic action what they have lacked in dramatic depth. And that is a big reason why games have traditionally appealed most strongly to the demographic group that most enjoys frenetic action: young men. In its choice of milieu — science fiction — Mass Effect is not ambitious at all. But with its focus on character development, personal growth and moral tension, all fueled by a graphics system created to evoke emotional empathy, Mass Effect points the way forward. It may be a harbinger of a time when story and character are as important to video games as explosions.”

 Some challenging shooting, some well-timed explosions, and some character identification—that’ll get a lot of people through many games.  Indeed, these three areas comprise much of the “meaning” of the game.  Involvement, sensory immersion, and storyline are often more than enough in the world of video games. 

This point raises a serious challenge to the use of “meaning” or “narrative” in cultural anthropology.  Generally, the concept of “culture” has been used as the exclusive provider of “meaning.”  As Geertz writes, the analysis of culture should “not (be) an experimental science in search of law but an interpretive one in search of meaning.”  That meaning is equated with the “system of symbols” definition of culture that Geertz provides.  Obviously Geertz never put a 100 hours into playing Elder Scrolls IV: Oblivion.  But Oblivion has fun, beauty, and story in spades. 

Similarly, the overblown use of “narrative” often misses the importance of identification with the characters in a story (like the Master Chief in Halo), the fear that children will feel in a good telling of The Grimm’s Fairytales, or the point that grinding out goals and flying ragdolls comes close enough to “good narrative” for a lot of teenage boys.  “Discourses” need to connect with people’s everyday lives to be real, and anthropologists have generally not put enough time into understanding how that happens. 

Thus, alongside on-going involvement with games, neuroanthropology can examine the identification and meaning that people develop towards certain games.  Sure, masculinity plays a role in why American teenage boys might like first person shooters.  But these boys also like it because they find these games have a certain meaning to them.  So video games definitely represent one area where neuroanthropologists could do some creative research.  Just think of the “equipment” you could buy with your external funding… 

Say you do want to do neuroanthropology.  Video games also highlight the importance of considering the “technical issues,” which can also be numerous with the neurobiology.  Video games have the advantage, in that the technical side is conveniently explicit.  I see these issues as falling into two general categories: the programming and the gameplay.  As Mustard wrote in his piece, “While the team mulled over the intangible questions about what makes a game fun, I had to worry about such things as: How much disk space will that take?  Will it load fast enough?  How can I make that work?” 

On the interface side, game reviews are full of complaints about badly designed “gamplay.”  Gameplay can be both internal and external to the game.  On the internal side, let’s take Game Informer’s review of the new game Beowolf: “Beowolf is one of the most incompetent warriors to ever grace a game.  He can’t wield a weapon for more than a minute without it breaking in his hands, most of his time is spent babysitting his troops, and his combat animations are fixed once they start—which leads to enemies teeing off on him in those defenseless moments.  Suffering defeat in battle is only the beginning of this legendary character’s struggles.  Things actually get worse for him.  Much wore.  Through rhythm minigames that play like Dance Dance Revolution, Beowold ends up looking like  a cracked-out aerobics instructor.  The purpose for these oddly placed minigames?  To rally the troops into opening doors.  Lame.” 

On the external side, let’s take the review of a new “gun controller” for Time Crisis 4 (instead of the normal gamepad controller): “I certainly recognize the charm of having a realistically shaped gun as a controller—we all grew up on this sort of thing.  Unfortunately, the problems start right away with the new PS3 Guncon controller.  It feels cheap, and the new analog sticks in particular are chintzy and hard to use.  Once the game starts, players will be astounded to realize that no-reticle is the standard default approach to gameplay.”  (Astounded, that is, if you actually know what “no-reticle” actually means…) 

Why cover the technical side?  Because it is clear and obvious with the technology, and we need to do the same with the neurobiology in neuroanthropology.  The wiring of the brain, the types of neurotransmitters, and the pattern of firing matter, as do the sensory, bodily, and mechanical (e.g., your hands) interfaces.  How your brain works makes a difference in the experience and the story of a game, for example, that intermittent reinforcement is key to making a game “addictive.”  And your brain does not sit isolated like some primal force inside your skull—it is connected to your body (your pounding heart as the gameplay gets fast), its workings are guided by the movement of your hands as you try to shoot without a reticle (crosshairs), and the sensory moment can highlight two conflicting environmental demands, say, appreciating the artistry of a massive explosion versus being pwned by that same bastard once again. 

So here’s the moral of the neuroanth story.  How we approach the topic under investigation and how we draw on and conceive of the neurobiology involved both matter to good research. 

Part Two comes tomorrow, where I’ll focus more on the implications of video games for our understanding of “culture.”  In the meantime, I hope you gamers have fun this Christmas.  I’ll be busy peeking over the shoulders as my kids play on their new computer (shh, keep it a secret!).

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