Game talkMailbagWhy do we like a given game?

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Feb 152013
 

I was just asked this on Quora, and thought I would crosspost my answer here.

What makes people like specific genres of gaming (FPS, strategy, sports, racing etc)?

What can you tell about people who like only a certain genre of gaming like Fps rather than strategy?

Everyone starts out with different natural predispositions. For example, some people are born with more fast-twitch fibers in their muscles, which gives them the ability to move more explosively than others [Skeletal striated muscle]. Other folks have greater color sensitivity, faster reaction times, better ability to see things that are moving or that are standing still.

Some of these things are spread across a gradient where a person may fall anywhere on the gradient, but there are biases based on the sex of the individual in question. [Men and Women Really Do See Things Differently] We should be cautious about treating this as “biology is destiny” and instead think in terms of statistical distribution; recent metastudies show that overall, sex differences in cognition are weak correlations [Science Confirms The Obvious:  Men And Women Aren't That Different] but there are nonetheless some large and obvious differences between sexes and of course between people.

These predispositions mean that some things are easier or harder for a given individual. Not necessarily hugely so — maybe only marginally, say 1% easier than the norm. But it doesn’t matter, because of how the brain’s reward system works.

Dopamine is a hormone tightly linked with the learning process and with specific kinds of pleasure. It’s dangerous to generalize too much or ascribe it with too much power [The unsexy truth about dopamine], but in short, dopamine release is pleasurable and seems to be linked with the anticipation of a solution to a cognitive puzzle. Our brain works by attempting to assemble heuristics, habits, and schemata [Schema (psychology)] to be applied towards fresh and novel situations as we encounter them. We cluster together knowledge into groups we call “chunks” in order to better manage them with our relatively limited bandwidth. In other words, we function through pattern recognition.

Once we find a winning approach, we tend to repeat it. If we encounter a situation where we cannot apply any previously known pattern, then we are baffled. We need a “handle” to approach the problem with. In this sense, to quote myself “noise is just a name for patterns we don’t understand.” [A Theory of Fun for Game Design]

People with predispositions are therefore more likely to have a handle on patterns that lend themselves towards their particular skillset, because they were able to apply an inborn talent early. Someone with fast twitch muscle fibers in their legs learned that they can sprint fast pretty young. People with fine pitch perception learned that they can learn melodies easily. They got positive reinforcement from peers (“wow you’re fast!”, “you are musically talented!”) and also got self-reinforcement from their brain’s own learning mechanism. They applied a slight advantage to their schemata-building early on and were able to start practicing against a given problem set early.

Practice is what really makes the difference, particularly deliberate practice [Expertise], throwing yourself at the edge of your pattern library with conscious effort to push the boundaries out. This is hard work, and though just about any individual (barring actual disabilities) can do it for absolutely any field, it should be clear that people who had a leg up for a given field will experience less “noise” when they get going with the basics, will get more positive feedback on the way, and will likely seem to “be more talented” when in fact they are leveraging a statistically slight advantage. Think of it like compound interest, and you won’t be far wrong. Your own brain’s reward mechanism tends to push you to apply the known pattern, and so more and more you double-down on what worked in the past and keep practicing it.

To speak informally, it sucks to hammer away at something you feel bad at, and it feels good to hammer away at something you feel good at. And odds are excellent that you get external validation from every success at something you seem to be good at.

Games are in many ways deliberate practice machines (again, citing myself) [A Theory of Fun 10 Years Later]. We use them for recreation, but they are fundamentally and inevitably teaching us pattern recognition, habits, heuristics, and modes of thought. They are deliberately and consciously constructed to do so by game designers.

Different genres of game present different problem types [GDCA: Games Are Math slides posted]. These often cluster around specific things such as estimation of trajectory, odds calculation, solving NP-hard problems, and so on. People will come to these different games and different problem types with their existing pattern libraries, and therefore have “built in” skills in dealing with one type of game versus another.

If your skill set is poor, then you will find the game hard, or too hard. If you have plenty of reference context, you will find it approachable or easy. And this includes things like cultural context, rote learning (e.g., in a racing game, understanding what the torque ratings mean on different cars), affinity for narrative versus abstraction, etc.

All this boils down to “people tend to prefer the games that they are good at.” Often to the degree where they will play the game merely to exercise mastery, or as a form of meditation, rather than in order to actually engage in practice and push their skills even higher. It results in pleasurable feedback from the brain.

But. This same chain of logic argues that if you want to expand your skill set, your pattern library, your heuristics, your chunks — basically, if you want to maximize your potential — you should go play the games you don’t find fun. It will be hard work until you get a handle on them, but odds are good you have been avoiding these games because they are more work. And this carries through to life in general. You may think that you’re good at math and bad at poetry, and therefore avoid poetry as early as you can in life. But someday you may encounter a situation where the poetry is useful. Don’t avoid the things you find hard. Work on them.

In the end, though, you have limited time and can’t achieve mastery of everything. It isn’t surprising that the overall drivers here lead towards individuals specializing. We are a tribal species, and specialization drives interdependence. In the end, you have to decide for yourself whether you follow the Heinlein quote and the ideal of the Renaissance or well-rounded person [Heinlein - Specialization is for Insects] or whether you believe it is better to work towards utter expertise at one thing, and avoid cluttering your brain with the other stuff.

  21 Responses to “Why do we like a given game?”

  1. I frickin’ love this post. To add just one point: the “natural predisposition” advantage (however minimal) can sometimes impact the middle of an expertise curve and lead those with the early advantage to drop out completely while the less-naturally-talented just keep plugging away. The difference is partly explained by Dweck’s work — the “natural” is often given reinforcement, true, but if it takes the form of praise about their natural ability, this can lead to demotivation as things become more difficult. And at some point in any domain where expertise can be developed, it *will* get hard even for those with natural dispositions for that domain. Dweck’s Growth vs. Fixed mindset is something we should all keep in mind when dealing with “the natural”, and praise both the natural and… Everyone else…. For effort over ability. In a group setting, this can be much worse, as praising the natural for his natural “gifts” lowers the motivation for those who do not, by reinforcing the notion that natural ability counts for much more than it actually does (thanks to Ericcsson etc. for showing us that deliberate practice counts for far more than natural ability in most domains and at most levels other than the very top best in the world, and — as you mention – at the earlier stages).

    I love the way you emphasized the pushing-the-edge aspect of deliberate practice, as the phrase “deliberate practice” is terribly misleading. It sounds too much like, “practicing, deliberately” which could describe virtually ANY form of practice, and as we know, only highly specific forms of practice can accurately be called “deliberate practice” in the science of expertise. I just keep calling it “edge practice” to at least make it clear that practicing what you are already competent in doesn’t count, or that simply doing it more or longer doesn’t necessarily count (and could make it worse).

    Thank-you for this. My next book is focused on the development of expertise (though nothing related to games), so it’s on my mind…

  2. Great comment, Kathy!

    It brings to mind another issue, which I seem to recall mentioned in one of Gladwell’s books… The degree to which plain old chance can impact the opportunity to get the right kind of practice. If I recall, his example was around kids in sports and what time of year they were born. Because kids get bucketed by age brackets they end up with very different practice environments and very different degrees of fun in the process.

    If we had a magic wand to wave over the educational system, it would be a way to find a way to tap into a given kid’s predispositions so that they could be applied regardless of subject. A hock way to learn math. A mathy entry point to music. An artsy entry point to physics. providing a fun first experience so kids don’t bounce off. This of course harks back to learning styles or multiple intelligences…

  3. That’s a really wonderful post. Very well expressed thoughts.

    Not really contributing but wanted to offer praise.

  4. “Do not, then, my friend, keep children to their studies by compulsion but by play. That will also better enable you to discern the natural capacities of each.” Plato, Republic, 7.536e-537a. One point being that in free play, because of the feedback loops you describe, Raph, people gravitate towards those activities in which they already experience that “slight advantage”. I like your conceit “so use that as the bridge/lever/scaffold over into all the OTHER things there are to learn” very, very much, because it highlights another thing: We can only discover the areas where our specific dispositions align fortuitously and start practicing them when we are exposed to a large variety early on. One person I’ve followed quite a bit who is very adept at this kind of bridging for maths is Dan Meyer: http://blog.mrmeyer.com/?p=7126 http://blog.mrmeyer.com/?p=452

  5. So why do we like the games we don’t like? For instance, I don’t like playing chess, but I like watching Masters at play. Similarly, I dislike many sports, but I can’t turn away my gaze when I see them practiced by professionals. And there’s even a middle ground – I practice some games because of their cultural value, appreciating them but at the same time not enough to want to master them (so I like to play Go, but mostly to be able to say “I play Go”. It has a value, but it’s not in the game (it happened to me also with certain MMOs and other video games).

    (This is a really interesting post, needless to say)

  6. The act of observing chess and playing chess are very different. I don’t why one wouldn’t find the one more pleasurable than another under the above theory.

    The idea of playing some games because of a recognized exterior value also seems like a very basic sort of behavior. We do many things for the sake of status, for the sake of peer approval, out of obligation, etc.

  7. Thanks for the reply!

    I think that watching chess and playing chess are fairly similar, at least in a number of cases: as an spectator, I enjoy “playing” the game that is being played by the masters, but I would never play it because of pressure, expectations, performance anxiety, … (And the same goes for the game being played casually – performance anxiety is the nr. 1 reason why I don’t play certain games I enjoy playing).

    As for the reward structure idea, I’ve talked to a couple of retired professional sports people who never liked the games they were playing – not even when they were not pro. Their skills were optimal for the games they played (so much so that they became paid players!), but they never enjoyed those games. Incidentally, this seems to be the case with some high profile sportspeople, who loathe the game the better they get at it (because of pressure, etc.).

    As for the external rewards question, I guess I was hinting at the point I often end up making, and that lurks in my comment: the context of a practice is as important as any other factor in human behavior. Context explain why we like some games as spectator pleasures, but not as played.

    Also, there’s a relatively large history in aesthetic theory/philosophy trying to figure out why we like things (well, art-things). I think games should be seen from that perspective (I don’t mean that your arguments are flawed, I just like seeing games and playthings from another perspective :)

  8. I definitely do not see the explanation I gave as being divorced from context. Context changes everything!

    I think it is quite common for people who achieve at a high level to grow to dislike the thing they are expert at. Deliberate practice is exhausting and hard work and not very fun in itself when undertaken with deliberation.

  9. I’m probably just being obnoxious because I didn’t find the world contect spelled out in the text :)

    As for the athletes, at least those I knew started playing their sports/games because they were good at them, but not because they like them. I find that distinction interesting (and that’s why I think aesthetic appreciation might be a good model for games and play).

  10. I think “like them” is a slippery thing there. They liked the approbation they got from being good at it. They liked the feeling of success. They just didn’t like the actual actions. In terms of the rewards we get for it, that’s subconsciously a wash… The activity makes us feel good… It’s just for different reasons.

    Either way, you end up doing more of the activity unless you are self-aware enough to figure out what about it appeals to you. The questioner was really trying to ask a predictive question: can I tell what someone is like from the games they play, and can I tell what games someone will play from what they are like? And the answer is yes, to a degree you can. Whether they actually enjoy the game in question is actually a side issue.

  11. Oh, and there’s a bit of a discussion on the context issue on the Google+ thread on this post, with Richard Bartle.

  12. [...] Why do we like a given game? [...]

  13. “you should go play the games you don’t find fun” You should find the little bit of fun there is to be had in these games.

    I can see this understanding of why, early on, people play and excel at a specific genera will help game developers. I see super-easy FPS mini-games embedded in turn based strategy as a way to cross-pollinate genres to new players.

  14. As for the spectator sport, what about the notion of “vicarious participation”? I know I am not good at doing X, but I enjoy imagining myself being good at doing X, and when I watch a good heist movie, by identifying with the characters (slippery word for sure, “identification”), I get the sense I vicariously am just as smart. Same for spectator sports? Or is what you enjoy your own intelligence in being able to make snarky/insightful/… comments?

  15. Vicarious participation adds even more variables into the mix. We have tribal identification, in the case of sports. We have social effects, when watching with friends or a crowd. We have a very different sort of cognitive puzzle compared to actual participation… very soon we’re at the point where pinning down which thing it is we enjoy gets hard.

  16. I’m a continuing advocate for games that measure the abilities and interests of the player and modify themselves to both reinforce existing competencies and develop new ones. An example I’ve been playing recently is Rocksmith — it’s a musical game in the same general genre as Guitar Hero and Rock Band, but it employs real guitars and instead of fixed levels of difficulty, it analyzes your playing on the fly and simplifies or complicates the arrangement that it’s throwing at you.

    The same principle could be applied to other games and to the way we educate as well. Done right, it could help with both the breadth and depth of our skill sets.

  17. Personally, I excel at manipulating large volumes of seemingly unrelated information, such that in my mind I perceive the information as a single, unified system. While I can barely juggle two balls in my hands, I can juggle gross amounts of data in mind. As a result, I truly loved the Beast Master crafting system in Star Wars Galaxies. It totally played into what I enjoy doing as a human being, which made it a really fun game! To a slightly lesser extent, I also enjoyed the other crafting systems in SWG. An important thing to consider about this is the fact that in order craft a BM pet (or anything of importance really) in SWG, a person had to accomplish a wide variety of tasks external to the process of crafting itself, such as inventory management, actual math (if one wanted to make something of high quality), social networking, and decorating/maintaining a memorable store. When all of these tasks are combined with materials that are required and the understanding of the process itself, you end up with a pretty darned complex pet crafting system for a computer game.

    In short, SWG was the perfect game for me, because it had enough “stuff” for my mind to juggle and sort that I felt good after playing it, just like someone else might feel good after making a great save in a game of hockey. That’s pretty neat.

  18. This was a very fascinating read and the Powerpoint was very interesting. I do some social network modeling, so the graph theory portions made me smile (everything becomes a network problem once you drink the koolaid)!

    Focusing on the schema side of things I found myself wandering back to personality types. Specifically, in this case, Myers Briggs since it’s a bit more about how information is processed than how people act. The idea being that the way you process information influences the way you act.

    Wikipedia for MB: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Myers-Briggs_Type_Indicator

    It would seem that games are “fun” to the extent that they present data in a format that resonates with the way you process information. Since data structured that way makes sense to you faster, you tend to be more successful, which triggers task specific self efficacy, which…

    Wikipedia for Self Efficacy: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Self-efficacy (specifically factors affecting self efficacy)

    In that context, the same type of game presented in a different way is going to resonate with different players. Continuing with MB, since SF types tend to predominate the US population, you’re going to see fun frequently described based on tangibility and direct experience (sensing) along with consensus, harmony and fit (feeling)

  19. Myers-Briggs doesn’t have a lot of scientific validation to it (despite my having referenced it in the book). Those days the gold standard is Big Five or OCEAN. Developer Jason Vandenberghe has done some preliminary work on mapping Big Five traits to specific games and his presentations on it are available online.

  20. I actually like B5 more than MB. I tend to reference MB because it is often a bit more known. But, yes, it’s a heck of a lot easier to show B5 relationships to behavior.

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