Monday, July 24, 2006

Games are designer food for infovores

I happened across this article in New Scientist discussing how the brain processes information. Research by Irving Biederman of Universtiy of Southern California in University Park and Edward Vessel of New York University provides some indirect scientific backing for many of the concepts I’ve discussed here such as:
  • Games as drugs
  • Burnout
  • The pleasure of groking that Raph Koster has discussed so eloquently.
They also claim to have coined the term “infovore” (which already had 86,800 hits on Google :-) I'm a big believer that there exists a strong foundation of neuroscience underlying the highly predictable behavior of people playing games.

Attempting to interpret information gives us a high
Scientists are beginning to understand the exact mechanisms in the brain that encourage the release of pleasure when consuming stimuli.

They claim that the neural pathways through which we learn about the world tap into the same pleasure networks in the brain as are activated by drugs like heroin. […] These are the areas that become active when the brain is trying to interpret the information it is receiving, whether that is an image of an object, or words on a page, or the song of a bird. Biederman and Vessel suggest that when this happens, the endorphins that stimulate mu-opioid receptors are released, causing a feeling of pleasure.

How to increase the high
We can improve the impact of our gaming systems by using information-based rewards that are highly pertinent to our audience.

What’s more, because the number of mu-opioid receptors increases the further along the neural processing pathway, information that triggers the most memories and conveys the most meaning to a person causes the greatest pleasure response. It is this bonus that compels people to browse for new information.

Burnout is briefly discussed. I’d like to see a lot more on this particular topic.

Does this effect ever wear thin? Yes, with repetition. Reading a book for the second time is less stimulating than reading it for the first time. “

Delaying burnout
The article also describes how delayed comprehension entices people to keep coming back to the same information source.

Beiderman and Vessel say that endorphins are released at the ‘click’ of comprehension, and that until the penny drops people are happy to return to a subject. Children take longer to “click” than adults – which explains their enthusiasm for hearing the same bedtime story night after night.

Quite fascinating, really.