The triumph of experience over reality, and games analytics

For a while after I moved the chest of drawers in my hall, I sometimes saw it  in its old location.   This happened only when I wanted to get something out of it.

Flickr: Binary Ape

Flickr- Binary Ape


It didn’t pop out at me and say BOO! as I walked by en route to doing something else.  Its appearance was linked to my intent to do something with it.

Eventually I caught up with reality  – at least as far as my chest of drawers was concerned – and the chest of drawers no longer met me halfway when I went to get something out of it.  I can’t recall if it faded away slowly like a Cheshire cat,  or just plain old wasn’t there one day.  My guess is that it followed the adaptation in my intention.

Memory, like perception, experience, intentionality and self-report, is a constructive and active process.  This is widely acknowledged – and not well understood.   The relationship between top-down, theory-based processing and bottom-up, data-based processing is the subject of a fair amount of tug of war.

Now, if you are (not unreasonably) wondering what this has to do with games analytics, I am heading over that way just as soon as I tell you a bit about some sessions @developconf I went to recently.  Or you can cut to the chase.

My own session @developconf was about using analytics in support of discovery-driven design, but I attended as many other sessions as I could, and the mix has been fermenting nicely.  For me, there were two themes that stood out:

  • social TV, 2nd screen TV, and games  (all very shiny and uncertain and potentially massive and interesting)
  • the theme that I’m chewing on at the moment, which is the relationship between expectation and experience.

There were four sessions that stirred my thinking on the theme of expectation and experience:

Overall, I was delighted by what I heard.   In the audio sessions they’d busted a gut to rig up a proper Dolby(tm)  sound system for the room, which could partly explain why.  But the sessions were also deeply thought-provoking.   And somewhere in the back of my mind I am still thinking about them.

Steven Root’s Keynote covered a lot of ground over a long period of time and en route touched on how iOS was like going back to basics in terms of resource limitation.  This in turn triggered a nostalgic story about how way back in the old days (on I  forget which platform), they couldn’t loop audio, so on one of his projects they were forced to have a gap in the music until such time as the platform could marshall its tiny resources to perform a rinse and repeat.   The point is this.  People said to him “when you made the music stop, that was brilliant”.

Alistair Lindsay had a similar point to make, amidst his explanation of his game-state-responsive but non-literal UI soundscape for “Prison Architect”.  In the midst of talking about an emotional equaliser, where you can boost the the essence of an effect by finding a contrasting objecting and cutting that, he demonstrated some cymatic frequencies, and wondered whether the whole effect they seemed to have actually concentrated on when the music stopped.  In a flight of creativity, he wondered whether it was possible to do Pavolvian conditioning based on the absence of a sound.  The bell that didn’t ring, the dog that didn’t bark,  as it were.  The violated expectation.

Perceptually and cognitively, we are all expert at detecting change.  Which is a good thing, as it’s important. (In a way, it’s all there is)   We are also, it seems, hard-wired to notice  change vis a vis our expectations.   Which is where the Anatomy of Fun panel came in.    And, at a suitable comic lag, my chest of drawers.

Every panellist had something interesting to say, but for me the highlight was Robb Rutledge talking about his work in neuroeconomics, using MRI scanning to look at how dopamine levels  encode reward prediction error.   A reward prediction error is what happens when- for better or worse –  things don’t work out as you’d hoped.  As I understand it, it’s usually applied to a discrete event with a quantifiable probability of occurrence, not an ongoing unease like a mid-life crisis.

One of his recent findings  – skipping gently over a few ph.d.’s lying in the hallway –  is that it is the relationship between reward and expectation that predicts happiness.  Via dopamine.   I do find it amusing when findings that are intelligible on a social and behavioural level seem to take on an heightened degree of reality when they are found in the brain.     But that’s what brain scientists do, is look for stuff in the brain.  So it’s not like I’m surprised or anything.   And what he said was certainly interesting.

One of the other panellists observed, riffing onwards from Robb’s work,  that at the moment it seemed that people wanted to make games composed of mostly of ice cream, but it was necessary to have broccoli, too.    Mastering uncertainty is rewarding – but such learning usually involves failure en route.   This is extremely important, which is why we are good (in our good-enough way) at detecting it.  The view of the practitioners was that it’s OK to be frustrated or lost, because of the mismatch of expectation and experience,  if the tension was used in some way.

Dear Esther, a moody and atmospheric oeuvre in which there is very little agency possible on the part of the player, is yet another interesting example of the relationship between expectation, emptiness and experience.   The work’s focus is on creating emotional resonance, and leaving space for emotional reactions to the flow of experience without the need for the busyness, the entrained physicality, of a ‘typical’ sensory-physical entrainment loop.    But even without the engagement of a well-mastered physical control feedback loop, even in comparative emptiness, there is still experience.  Symbols appear, and resonate with a long half life.  Here the expectation is generalised – not, specifically, of a chest of drawers, but of the nature of the experience both locally and over the course of the game.   There is a yearning caused by the absence of action, and agency, that builds to a powerful effect.   Not everyone’s cuppa, but a consumable with a strong flavour.

So, what does this have to do with games analytics?   Just this.  There’s no point doing analytics if you aren’t prepared to change your design as a result of doing it.   And, aside from the fire-fighting troubleshooting type of reactive change (which I’m not dissing as it can save your bacon -it’s a question of not only but also),  you get the best mileage out of analytics-powered design change if you use it to systematically explore design options and resultant outcomes  in a way that gets you to closer to where you want the game to be.  The paradox is that easily and obviously quantifiable things, like Google’s infamous 41 shades of blue, are not always the most interesting or useful to vary.   This is where it’s vital to attend closely and thoughtfully to what dimensions of a design are likely to be most relevant.   Always remembering that the unexpected can be a source of delight, and insight.


2 thoughts on “The triumph of experience over reality, and games analytics

  1. Hi Heather

    > Mastering uncertainty is rewarding – but such learning usually involves failure en route.

    You could argue that failure is crucial for many types of learning. My stepson got ahold of the Microsoft flight simulator program when he was about 10. Instead of trying to fly “normally”, he first set about systematically trying to crash the plane in every new way he could conceive of. This strategy of exploring the parameters and boundaries soon made him a very accomplished (albeit simulated) pilot. Cheers, -t


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