The Brain is Not an Emulator*

Jun 29, 2011

If you’re not familiar with Verbal Overshadowing, I suggest looking into it. Go ahead, I’ll wait. At least read the first three sentences there, and you’ll get the gist.

As it relates to this entry: when thoughts about a “principally non-verbal process” (gameplay) are digested into words, they can interfere with the accuracy of those memories rather than aiding them. The more we discuss videogames and videogame design, the more at risk we become of wandering astray from what we’re supposedly discussing. Talk about Pac-Man too much, and you’re likely to start mixing up all sorts of important details (pop quiz: does Pac-Man move faster or slower than the ghosts? [check your answer]), if not outright dreaming up and emphasizing all sorts of seemingly important aspects that are either not there or turn out to be comparatively unimportant during real, actual, human play.

Part of what makes this tendency dangerous is that we’re unaware of this confusion, since the brain is providing its own reference. Minds are powerful but often imprecise, and we’re prone to lie to ourselves on accident. We think we know how something works in a game, so we’ll just visualize the game in our heads to check, and… yep, sure enough, it’s exactly like we thought. But of course the brain is actually fudging that visualization, constructing it from what we think we know, rather than replaying a lossless video recording.

Gameplay is Nothing Like Watching

Speaking of video recording: looking up a YouTube video isn’t sufficient, either, and nor is watching someone else play. The human complexities of analog input, cognitive overload, attentional bias and reflex limitations are lost in indescribable tacit memory and immediate experience, but none of that happens if you aren’t the one actively playing. When you aren’t the one playing there’s no stress, no relief, no exploration, no dexterity, no practice, no learning, no being lost nor stumped nor excited. Without those events in the picture, it’s not really a videogame being discussed at all. Studying YouTube videos of games is a good way to become an expert in making YouTube videos of games, but that’s not at all what we’re interested in doing.

Play a Little Game

Imagination can’t even fully recreate playing classics like Pong or Breakout in real-time. Stop for a minute and try it. Let the actions, movements, and sounds play out… (continued in ebook)

*This entry is now in the Videogame Developer’s Strategy Guide, available through membership in Gamkedo Club.

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