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.



  1. Yeah, so make sure you blow people's minds the first go so they'll want a replay.

    I'm of the school of design where you embed a variety of play styles and/or analgous characters at the same playing level, (similar to the playground approach) and let people find what resonates most through play.

    And of course, the idea of games are drugs is something near to my heart.

  2. So, this explains the "hot but deep" appeal of the Infinite Space games -- you learn something about the system each time you play, but because each game gives you only a tiny sample of a very large dataspace, it keeps you coming back.

    One of the things I'm still struggling with: why, if learning is so goshdarned pleasurable, do so many people hate school? Yes, the educational system does all it can to squash the love of learning out of youngsters... but even still, if the drive to learn is THAT powerful, wouldn't we see more students teaching themselves in spite of their teachers?

  3. The school issue is an interesting one. I suspect it comes down to the pertinence factor. In this model, rote information that fails to engage memories or convey meaning to a person causes only small amounts of pleasure. In other words, there are more interesting sources of information out there (such as teenage gossip, family matters, or even games! :-) that capture the children's attention.

    Make school interesting and pertinent to its audience and you'll see improved attention. Nothing really new there. :-)

    take care

  4. Indeed. Often, you're learning far more about your peers and the schoolyard's "politics" than you get in class. Learning isn't just getting into a mood, it's also all about context. Even as a kid, life often gets quite complex!

    Push your memory and try to remember what you were really thinking about when the poor teacher was trying to tell you Pythagoras...

    The onus in education goes far further than just the teacher on the frontline by the way, indeed I think it officially qualifies as a "wicked problem".

    What on earth would it be like if we didn't waste 90-99% of the talent out there?

  5. Though it may be a "wicked problem", part of the issue is also that school is not just simply a place you go to learn. It isn't just an information dump that you can choose from at your leasure and gain pleasure from the information you're gathering.

    School is a heavily elitist place where students are not only expected to learn, but they are given a standard on which their learning is scaled in order to progress to level of more advanced learning. As early as kindergarten the "smart" kids are specially selected for further education. It's similar to the concept that celebrities get all kinds of free things, we're spending more time educating the more intelligent children. We're teaching the smart ones more, and almost blatantly telling the less intelligent students that they -are- less intelligent and therefore they will be educated less.

    If school were a place where you could -choose- to learn or not, and you could choose what you learned, then maybe the pleasurable aspect of it would come out more. College is a lot more like this, but by that point many students are so burned out by the education system that they view it as yet another hurdle to overcome before they can finally stop learning.

    Thanks for the article link Danc!

  6. I agree with you Bartoneus with respect to American schools. In my own experience in Scotland, it's different yet ends up the same. Here we have a much more rigorously egalitarian system, the "comprehensive" school where kids are only rarely streamed to begin with and basically things rumble along at roughly the pace of the slowest in the class. Primary school (elementary) in my case was mind numblingly boring as a result and by the time I entered high school I was complacent and lazy.

    High schools here differ heavily from eachother despite the pretence, and mine was much more competetive than some of my friends'. I'd say that the experience, although jarring at first, was very positive and certainly I came out of it with a sense of having been to a good school. Other former classmates from my first school however dropped out and some are still long term unemployed today.

    It all seems to come down to a combination of a few things. Firstly, students home lives need to be stable. Secondly, no bullying. Thirdly, good or great teachers - they really can and do shape people's entire careers. And lastly, a system where government etc. stay out of the way to let creativity and student choice reign, while ensuring it's well funded and available to as many people as possible.

    We have a well funded school system here, run with an often fanatic egalitarian ethos. Yet it's as inefficient as anything I've ever seen, and really does scar many kids chances at life.

    Acquisition of knowledge can be such a complex thing...

  7. Context of the material I think plays a huge part in all of this. To understand WHY one should be reading about books about war, or understanding how the body functions, or how the geometry has anything to do with the everyday world is often difficult to convey. High school makes this more abstract; you're more-or-less given the idea that there's no outside application for any of this information.

    The truth is that most students by high school aren't interested in most of these subjects. It'd probably benefit some individuals more to go into a vocation or something that they would find interesting while at the same time realizing that such jobs aren't "dumb." Blue collar jobs such as studying to become a mechanic, plumber, carpenter, or working in construction are all very much respectable paths, each with their own level of complex understandings and much needed skills.

  8. Hi, I'm a graduate master student in game design & development and I've been following your website for the past 8 or so months and must compliment you on a great blog.

    I've been researching the way games seem to 'work' for some time now for my thesis and the way I see it is that the pleasure of learning is only sustained if the learned information is actually observed as 'useable' and even better when it can be re-used as a steppingstone for further development.

    Great teachers are usually people who can explain why we need to learn certain information. Indeed, as said in earlier comments, the 'to-be-learned' should have meaning to the students (or indeed gameplayers). This would explain why people have such strong feelings against schools, because they do not see the benefit of the material on offer.

  9. "The truth is that most students by high school aren't interested in most of these subjects."

    It's interesting that this is brought up, considering the fact that IF these broad subjects are not presented in high school, where can they present themselves? It's a very difficult dilemma to dicipher. On one hand, you need to give the kids exposure to most subjects so they can find their interests (and there ARE trades classes in high school, but usually they have more fancy names like "integrated technology" or something like that). So in reality this is still probably the best system you can have at the introduction level. We can let the kids specialize afterwards (like how high school is run now).

    "I've been researching the way games seem to 'work' for some time now for my thesis and the way I see it is that the pleasure of learning is only sustained if the learned information is actually observed as 'useable' and even better when it can be re-used as a steppingstone for further development."

    Very interesting. Any results and what not that I can see? It would be interesting to see whether this can hold true in a school environment, like whether or not applied exercises are more plausible for the teaching system compared to a more academic and abstract approach.

  10. Hi. This is a very interesting discussion. I am a cognitive scientist and educational designer. I and some colleagues have written some software-based educational interventions that draw on this kind of research to combine some of the motivational benefits of games with the learning benefits of highly structured curricula. The activities have puzzle-like qualities but are not meant to be games per se (and they are not edutainment).

    One insight I have had is that relevance is certainly one factor influencing information-based reward, but it is not the only factor. How, for example, can we account for the appeal of "Tetris" if only relevance (and/or novelty) stimulates reward? Tetris has no real content to speak of, and after you play it for a while there's little novelty. I think the designer of Tetris has distilled out the essence of a second dimension of information-based reward that does not depend on context or relevance or even the nature of the content but depends on the formal structure of the interaction. Although this structure might be less relevant in the domain of gaming (where narrative and novelty dominate), it is probably more promising than the other dimension in education because it is more scalable (in principle it could be a vehicle for any kind of content) and cheaper to implement (it doesn't require elaborate narratives, high-end assets, etc. to generate the payoff).

    The trick is to analyze these complicated behaviors (gaming, education, etc.) into the basic neural and cognitive mechanisms that produce the desired effects (for instance, long-term engagement with the material) and then reconstitute them in the form of a design palette accessible to educators (or gamers, or authors, or whomever).

  11. Something that I have been wondering about for well over 10 years is how it would be possible to further integrate gaming with schooling. Let me post a simplified idea of how I know I would have liked to go through school.

    The entire curriculum would be converted into an RPG with custom character, items and such. This could start as early as the latter years of grammar school. Children would run around a gaming world together with their peers and fight different kinds of monsters in different areas, each type requiring different skills.

    The fights would basically be attacks from the monster that have to be countered with the right answers, even though I dont think a quiz would be too motivating so (while still being part of the whole) I would minimize this part. I would in most places try to do something that requires procedural thinking in the same way that using the right fight techniques does in classic fighting games. Duels should also be included, but should be mostly between players of similar levels.

    The students collect experience points and can rise in level for different skills, as soon as they are far enough their player level rises, too. Students also gain game currency which could maybe even be redeemable for real life rewards (just a side idea).

    Imagine students not talking about the latest FF game on campus but rather about their current school levels and how they still want to finally kick that big orc boss's butt to see it hit the floor and have the game announce their glorious victory. Imagine another student say "oh thats nothing, i beat it yesterday!" and all the looks of jealousy and admiration from the other kids...

    THIS is what I would do. What would you? What do you think?

  12. "As early as kindergarten the "smart" kids are specially selected for further education. It's similar to the concept that celebrities get all kinds of free things, we're spending more time educating the more intelligent children."

    In elementary school? NO WAY. I was considered a 'problem child' for many years, just because I had the audacity to read books during class lessons which were painfully slow and repetitive. None of the teachers were pleased that the books I was reading were way above my grade level, or that I could still get top test grades despite my lack of attention. Instead I got marks docked for "lack of participation", and received lectures for bringing inappropriate novels to school. (How many grownup novels can you find that are considered "appropriate" for a fourth grader?) The teachers weren't catering to me. They were just irritated me because my intelligence made me inconvenient. There were no special rooms or special teachers to meet my 'special needs', because those needs didn't prevent me from passing tests. There were no high school learning buddies or extra help sessions for me, because I knew the curriculum, and learning anything more wasn't necessary or encouraged. It didn't matter that I was unchallenged and bored out of my skull. Public school moves at the pace of the slower snails, as one of my later teachers put it, and that's a system that definitely does not work for intelligent kids.

    The inability to control pace is frustrating for those on either end of the bell curve; one group feels left behind and the other forgotten. My favorite courses throughout high school and college were always the online courses for this reason. I would definitely be for any educational reform that allows children to learn at their own pace. I don't know if an RPG would be appealing to all students, but it seems like it could work for some, at least as a supplementary tool.