Wednesday, June 14, 2006

Erotic Mathematics: Lessons in Perception

Eros ex Math 4
Digital image by Peter Miller ©2004
I was recently sent a gallery of erotic mathematical renderings by a friend with a remarkable nose for the obscure. They are certainly evocative. It goes to show how a little art training goes a long way in the pursuit of the harder sciences.

Naturally this got me thinking of on one of my favorite topics. How do we create high impact experiences without spending lots of money?

Realism: The obvious solution?
Suppose for a moment that I wanted to create a highly sensual environment in a game. The obvious solution is to drench the scenery in photorealistic voluptuous figures complete with taut pink nipples or pleasantly rippling pectorals. By getting hundreds of thousands of little details 100% correct, by replicating reality in our game, we can evoke the same emotions as if the player had experienced the situation for real. This train of thought drives much of the passion behind the quest for hyper realistic virtual reality.

Does the brain need all this stimuli in order to reach the equivalent level of arousal? Human perception is distinctly not photographic in nature. We see blurs where camera capture crisp detail. Our brains filter out extraneous shapes and details in the presence of faces or sudden distractions. Much of the history of the visual arts and almost all of the history of stage magic has been spent cataloging and hacking into our brains imperfect, quirky and highly biased shortcuts for sensing of the physical world.

Gorillas in our Midst
There is a famous study about a group of research participants that were asked to watch a tape of people passing a ball back and forth. The participants were asked to count the number of passes and if they got the right number they would get a prize. In the middle of the video, a person in an ape costume walks out into the middle of the room, pauses and then walks out of the room. Later when the participants were asked if they had seen anything unusual, a large fraction claimed to have not seen a thing. They were so focused on the task of watching the ball being passed back and forth that their brains had simply erased the ape from their senses.

If this had been a virtual room with virtual people passing virtual balls, would it have been cost effective for the developer to render the virtual ape?

Photorealism is a na├»ve strategy for rendering evocative experiences. We throw up our hands and say “I don’t know what causes people to tick, so I’m going to throw it all in and hope something sticks.” This is sometimes effective, but oh so expensive. Throw in a few untested skin shaders and a cutting edge facial animation system and you've created a classic high volatility risk cocktail. Even worse, sometimes by focusing on everything, you miss the few details that the human brain cues into strongly. The result is the uncanny valley where we create zombie-like monstrosities that do more harm to the experience than good.

Show only those elements that trigger responses
The smart way to create a highly sensual environment is to create only the subtle triggers that trick our primitive brain into reacting viscerally. What if instead of rendering those lovely photorealistic nipples, we instead took the path of the mathematician artist above. With a few soft curves and the appropriate color palette, a skilled developer could generate a virtual pornucopia of erotic mathematical landscapes. Mathematica fetishists aside, I suspect the results would be surprisingly successful and far less expensive than motion capturing hundreds of professional actors. After all, what is more erotic? The half glimpsed form in the flickering firelight or the full on frontal nudity of a Playboy / Playgirl photo shoot? Certainly, the viewer’s mileage will vary depending on their end goals, but for most casual situations, the former is quite effective.

Visual stimuli are a highly effective, but also admittedly expensive tool for rewarding players of your game. Always remember that your beautiful creations are passed through that quirky biological sensor known as the human brain that carefully filters out a larger percentage of what it receives. Pick visuals that matter and are pertinent to the task at hand, not merely ones that are ‘realistic.’

Take care

Gallery of erotic mathematics

A description of “"Gorillas in our midst: sustained inattentional blindness for dynamic events" (Perception, vol 28, p 1059),

An alternative view on richness of perception

Saturday, June 10, 2006

Community sites as games: The tip of the iceberg

I’ve been looking at three quite popular community-based websites recently and putting together a few thoughts on the game mechanics used to encourage user participation and grow the communities.

First, these services demonstrate some classic game design techniques. Second, it is exciting to see game design making its way into such non-traditional arenas.

Wearing game design colored glasses
In the model of game design I’ve been using, the user performs an action and gets either positive or negative feedback. Many single player titles automate this process and have the computer dole out rewards based off the machinations of an internal system of rules. Multiplayer or social games instead provide mechanisms for other players to provide feedback that reinforce a particular behavior.

Designing a successful mix of mechanical and social reward systems for multiplayer games is a rich topic. There are a laundry list of design concepts derived from historical MUDs, and modern MMORPGs that are reasonably well studied and often discussed by educated game designers. It is from this perspective that I looked at the features of the community sites.

Examples of game design at work
Here is a laundry list of game design techniques that are evident.

  • Basic action-reward feedback system
  • Leveling your character
  • Exploring the environment to find new rewards and challenges
  • User created content
Basic action-reward feedback system
Never underestimate the power of comments and friend notifications. Community sites are a reward rich environment that rewards adding content to the site. In Judy’s Book, as soon as you add a review, there are four obvious levels of rewards that come into play, each operating on at a different scope.

  • Users can view the review. Just knowing that someone is looking at one you wrote can give a jolt of pleasure to many.
  • Users can agree or disagree with the review. This requires more investment on the part of the other user and has a correspondingly bigger impact on the writer. When someone disagrees, first time users can be sent into a period of self doubting. Often this challenge encourages them to ‘do better next time.’
  • Users can comment on the reviews. Again, this is a high investment reward. It tends to occur at a slower, less predictable pace than mere views and offers the intermittent reinforcement that most classic games thrive on.
  • Users can ask to become a friend. This is a permanent commitment that is suggestive of real social bonds. The first time someone asks to be your friend, it can be a huge positive rush.
Other community sites offer similar feedback mechanisms that encourage people to participate in the community. Both Deviant Art and Threadless have comments. Threadless also includes a powerful rating system.

Leveling your character
The concept of leveling your character as a demonstration of both status in the community and investment in your online personality also makes an appearance.
  • In Judy’s book, when you write a review, add a comment or answer someone’s question, you gain a small amount of experience. With enough experience point, your ‘Trust Score’ level increases. Raise it high enough and you could gain the special City Editor badge.
  • In Deviant Art, reputation is demonstrated through extensive stats: You can pretty much just glance at any Deviant’s home page to see how popular they are or how long they’ve been with the group. You don’t need explicit levels plaster above someone’s head to show status. We don’t have such a crutch in the real world and it is amazing how quickly the human eye adapts to judging someone based off a glancing at a slew of numerical stats.
Exploring the environment to find new rewards and challenges
Though all three sites offer search functionality, the primary method of exploration is by traveling through social links.

  • In DeviantArt, the friends list creates a large network topography of friend links. There is inherent value in each link since it suggest that the people who liked one type of art would also like and prefer a similar type of art. I could spend hours browsing through my friend’s recommendations.
  • In Threadless, the use of blogs that link to T-shirts that the user likes acts as another form of friend’s list. By treating recommendations as a blog post, users can add context to their recommendations and allow for feedback.
In both cases, the user is encouraged to explore new content. The hook is that the content comes with an implicit or explicit recommendation that it will be pertinent to the user and not a waste of their time. This exploration of new content process is fundamental to the operation of the entire game. As they browse, users passively increase the views of content. They also tend to leave comments, friend requests and ratings, which in turn create new links of exploration for future users and encourage the increased production of new content.

I find this to be a fascinating contrast to your typical MMOG that insists on using a strong physical map to creating a large interlinked environmental space. Clicking on a door to enter a building or clicking on a link to a friend’s home page is the same underlying technology. However, the metaphor used to express the action is different and the resulting topography is different as well.

There are some big benefits to using a social topography. Content is often pertinent to the user. You don’t need some expensive and in-depth back story to explain why the player should visit the northwest corner of the map. Instead, it is enough that the next link contains Susan’s favorite artwork and she was kind enough earlier to tag you as a friend.

User created content
This one is a bit obvious, but all these sites thrive on user created content. They are arguably much more advanced in their systems for encouraging the creation of new content than any other game.

DeviantArt has millions of submissions. Judy’s Book and Threadless have thousands. They are so successful at encouraging user submissions that there is hardly any developer created content on the site. This would be the rough equivalent of releasing World of Warcraft with a login system and some tools for creating levels and saying ‘Go at it.’

It obviously works and has potent cost reduction benefits that might be worth applying to more mainstream games.

The Big Picture: Why these examples matter
Each of these commercial and dare I claim profitable sites uses game-like systems to encourage participation. The successful application of game design is fundamental to their success. Community sites are a wonderful example of how game design can benefit and inform the creation of innovative real world applications.

Game design is currently a rather narrowly applied field. You’ve got a few board games, a many thousands of computer and console games in a few narrow genres and the relatively recent addition of modern ‘Serious Games.” The Serious Games movement, while it has its heart in the right place also manages to underestimate the wide scale applicability of game design to the larger world. Their most publicized usage involves using glorified FPS titles to help our rampant military industrial complex kill people more efficiently. This isn’t really stepping outside of the box much. The result is that you primarily see Serious Games relegated to places like ITSEC alongside a crusty training tank that someone hauled onto the show floor.

Game design, however, is a big concept. The ability to create automated systems that dole out both mechanical rewards and enable the exchange of social rewards lets us build products that harness the fundamentals of human psychology in a far more direct fashion than has ever been possible in the past.

From this perspective, game design is a fundamental body of techniques that should be taught along side microeconomics and psychology at any forward thinking business or product design school. It is in essence, the practical application of psychology to intrigue, capture, train and motivate users of a complex system or service. When properly applied good game design techniques encourage repeat usage, reduce customer churn and generate positive communities that promote the product virally.

This is all good stuff. Game design has all the aspects of a new skill set that smart people in a competitive world crave in order to give their products a strong competitive advantage. Learn it, adapt it to your needs, or fall behind.

I brought up community sites as examples of games for two reasons. First, they are fascinating examples of highly successful game designs that focus on a mixture of social and mechanical rewards. Any game designer could learn a lot from studying their mechanics in detail. The low cost of user content generation alone is a lesson that could revolutionize the ROI expectations of a wide range of titles.

Second, community sites hint that what we see in the marketplace currently is merely the tip of the iceberg when it comes to the potential of game design. If you are creating a product that involves people interacting with one another, you need to understand the psychological feedback cycles that encourage people to participate and promote your product. Game design provides many of the tools and terminology necessary to understand and manipulate these critical systems.

Now, if you pardon me, I have an undeniable urge to check out my DeviantArt profile. Maybe, just maybe, someone added me to their friends list.

Take care


Games I’ve been playing recently
Some of these sites use more primitive aspect of game design but don’t know it. You can rightly argue whether these are full fledged games. I say just give them time and competitive pressures. If they follow the typical pattern of evolving genres, the reward system will become more intense and they'll add additional layers of mechanics to trap users for longer periods of time.
Danc’s DeviantArt page:

Kill Chain (The delightful variant of the popular business term ‘supply chain.’ It is all about efficiency, baby.)
“KILL CHAIN - (1) The USAF six-stage target cycle of Find, Fix, Track, Target, Engage, and Assess (F2T2EA). NOTE: The time interval between each adjacent pair of stages in F2T2EA is referred to as a "seam." See also THREAT KILL CHAIN. (2) A U.S. Navy modeling and simulation system that utilized video game technology to examine new ship systems and military tactics. [10:3065] NOTE: KILL CHAIN was initially designed to illustrate the capabilities that the DD(X) will add to the battlespace for the U.S. Navy.”