Neuroscience will provide general rules and formulas to explain what the best game designers have discovered by instinct.

Why do Games Need Neuroscience? or,
The Importance of Having a Theory

The field of game design is maturing. For the past several decades, games have experienced many revolutions, most of which up until recently were driven by technological advances and development of next-generation consoles. This process is still ongoing, but with graphics technology approaching photorealistic levels and the power of computer hardware today able to simulate highly detailed real-world environments, most future game advances will be driven not primarily by technology but mostly by development of new and innovative game mechanics. One of my strong beliefs is that the next major advance in games, and even entertainment in general, will come from the incorporation of neuroscience into game mechanics and player experience design.

Game designers have struggled for many, many years to understand how to produce fun games. There have been many successes and many failures as well. Designers deliver entertainment to their players, and they design games to be fun by instinct, but often cannot fully and precisely explain how they inject fun into games. Many great game designers work by “feel,” playing through their levels over and over again and tweaking the gameplay loops that don’t feel fun to them or that most people would not find fun.

There’s nothing wrong with using intuition as a design approach, but if designers cannot pinpoint what makes a game fun, the effectiveness of game design is compromised and we are then stuck in a more or less primitive stage of development. Game design is seen as an art, not a science. This means that what makes a game fun is not tightly and accurately defined and at least difficult to pass down to new game designers or the next generation in a systematic manner.

These concerns are reflected in the fact that over the past decade, the game industry has become increasingly hit-driven. World of Warcraft chomps up over 60% of MMO market share and the top 20 casual games occupy 75% of the market. This has forced the entire game industry to become conservative and very risk-averse, suppressing innovation and radical design and in so doing, making it difficult for new types of games to flourish.

I believe that the remedy to this problem lies in use of neuroscientific rigor in game design. Games, at their core, are systems that must be learned. According to Raph Koster (one of the MMO gods), games are “rule-based systems / simulations that facilitate and encourage a user to explore and learn the properties of their possibility space through the use of feedback mechanisms.” If your game isn’t quickly learnable, players will get frustrated and it will fail. It’s natural, then, that the origin of learning, the brain, should not only be taken into consideration, but regarded as a guiding light when designing learning-based systems like games, even purely entertainment-based games.

First of all, neuroscience can be used to study and understand the elusive concept of fun. Design of reward systems and schedules and understanding of player pleasure and motivations must obviously be based on how the brain works. As has been widely reported, World of Warcraft’s variable ratio reward schedule essentially hijacks the reward systems of the brain to keep players playing forever. There are many other ways to generate fun that have yet to be described in a scientific manner.

Secondly, neuroscience will provide general rules and formulas to explain what the best game designers have discovered by instinct. We need to improve the current “hit-or-miss through intuition and observation” attitude upon which many game are based and attempt to create the Holy Grail – a Neuroscience Theory of Fun. Finding these neuroscientific patterns in the world to explain how to make games fun to learn and play will drive the whole industry forward.

In a more broadly applicable sense, I firmly believe in the importance of Having a Theory. Understanding the patterns of behavior and design principles for success will provide a road map for greater achievements in the future. These aforementioned principles apply essentially to any industry, any business, and in fact, any single human being. If you collect and organize your experiences into a theory or an organizing philosophy or structure, you’ll be able to teach more effectively, spread the knowledge, and reproduce and expand your successes. 

Malcolm Gladwell said in his New York Times interview, “People are experience-rich and theory-poor… people who are busy doing things don’t have opportunities to collect and organize their experiences and make sense of them.” In that same spirit, neuroscience will change the whole game for the game industry and allow creation of a “neuroscientific theory of fun” that can be accurately and precisely applied in the future.

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