Thursday, December 24, 2009

Gaming for the Lizard Brain

Recently I've been playing a couple of videogame sequels with my discretionary gaming time -- Ys IV: The Dawn of Ys on the PC Engine, and Banjo-Kazooie: Nuts & Bolts on the XBox 360.

One of the things that interests me about videogames as an art form is the way these electronic constructs connect to our brains and emotions as human beings.  There's an experiential component to gaming that isn't present in non-interactive media -- while at a conscious level we know we're just playing a game with rules and objectives, our brains are still processing the game world like any other environmental input, mapping it out and filing useful landmarks away for future reference.  The part of our neural complex that handles that work doesn't necessarily care if the input is real or artificial -- the wiring for spatial relationships and recognition of our surroundings seems to function in exactly the same way.  And while we know the characters we encounter in videogames are wholly artificial, cartoonish and mechanical approximations of intelligent entities, social and emotional impressions and attachments can still develop.

This is nothing new, of course; good fiction, and bad fiction for that matter, can introduce us to people and places that don't exist and convince us to care about them.  What makes videogames different, it seems to me, is that these connections form at a deeper level, as compared to simply reading or watching a story play out on a stage or screen.  Because we have been empowered to explore and learn, without necessarily being led down any specific path at any specific moment, we feel like we have been to these places, learned our way around them, and gotten to know the characters in them.  And if those characters have helped or hindered us in some memorable way, we can develop emotional responses to them like goodwill, irritation, esteem and mistrust.  Our deep-seated lizard brains behave like these virtual events have really happened to us, even though our "higher" processing regions know it's just a game.

And so, when we revisit a familiar game world in a new release, a genuine sense of nostalgia can be triggered.  We know things have changed since our last visit, and there's genuine pleasure in finding out exactly what has gone on in our absence.  At the beginning of Ys IV, I ran into several characters I first encountered almost twenty years ago while playing the original Ys I & II.  They hadn't aged much, of course, as in story terms only two years had passed.  But I was quite frankly surprised at how glad I was to "see" them.  I know they're not actually people; I know they don't remember me; I know they consist of digital drawings and scripted dialogue, and that they function primarily as storytelling devices.  But some part of my emotional history is tied up with these characters -- even if it was only for a few weeks twenty years ago, our association mattered in some way that my brain recorded for the long term.  And so when Dogi takes me out for a drink, or Lilia rushes to the house the morning after my arrival to greet me, at some level I respond emotionally to these simulacra as if they really were long-lost friends.  The bond is not as strong as those formed in the real world -- but it's a difference of degree, not kind.

I never played the original Banjo-Kazooie at the time of its original release, but playing the new game motivated me to go back and look it up.  And even though the timing is inverted, and the graphics of the original game are much more primitive, I feel nostalgic as I explore the world of Spiral Mountain as it was earlier.  There are areas that feel familiar, and areas that do not; the characters are largely as I remember them from the later game.  And it seems that whatever cosmetic differences my higher brain is capable of perceiving don't filter down into this experiential domain -- perhaps in the same way that real-world memories of people and places are imperfect, but certain details stick with us.  And that storage mechanism is perfectly capable of handling virtual worlds and people. 

There have been a number of failed experiments and genres over the decades as game designers work to create compelling interactive entertainment.  My hypothesis is that most often, bad games fail because they break the rules of our lizard brains -- too little interaction, too little control, too few choices.  We don't necessarily want or need realistically drawn and voiced characters -- a game doesn't have to look just like the real world, or pretend that it's not a game.  What we want is a world we can explore, learn about and attempt to master; an environment that contains, if possible, some semi-intelligent entities that can play an emotional role in our quest.  We want a gameworld that makes us feel like we've accomplished something, that we will live to see another day, and that we have a reason for wanting to do so.

That exercise satisfies something deep-seated in us, something that evolved long before our more sophisticated neural capabilities developed.

Good gaming is all about the lizard brain.

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