|February 15th, 2013|
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.