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, free with Gamkedo Weekly Check-In.

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  1. […] bet you can also learn a bunch if you just type-in the code yourself. And you can actually mess up your perception by talking about a thing? So much for MrJoeRants. (Not really. Recording a new one right […]

  2. […] from real ones. (This suspicion is similar to my conviction that studying real-time play based on memory of play, watching someone else play, or mostly/only watching YouTube videos is a common sourc… slipping into gameplay design […]

  3. […] Intellectualizing these kinds of activities as interesting decision-making fundamentally misses what’s going on in a person during play, and can lead to nonsensical design discourse detached from reality. It’s often a result of thinking about one’s memories of a game, instead of playing the game and paying close attention to the experience of really playing it. It partly arises from overconfidence in recall, trusting the brain to emulate the experience (it can’t). […]

  4. […] But use the Photographer’s Algorithm, and you’ll consistently wind up with something much better than you could have accomplished nearly any other way. It allows direct comparison, in-engine, in-play, between potential results in a way that’s otherwise simply impossible to do, since The Brain is Not an Emulator. […]

  5. […] faith in someone’s ability to understand how something will feel in play before trying it (“the brain is not an emulator” being one of my oft-repeated arguments), procrastination by over preparation, and so […]

  6. […] In other words what we actually do typically has far less to do with all that extra discussion and investigation, and much more to do with what arises from acting on our ideas and reacting dynamically if they don’t come together as expected. There’s often simply no way to know whether they can come together as expected until we’ve tried acting on them. As you’ve maybe heard me point out before, the brain is not an emulator. […]

  7. Uncompetative says:

    I don’t need my brain to be an emulator as I frequently play games that are similar to what I aspire to make myself whilst being mindful of the subtle interplay of their underlying mechanisms and how they combine to create emergent dynamics of varying richness and variety. I’ve played 10,000+ matches of Halo 3 multiplayer in order to better understand the constituent ingredients of its perfect recipe and how they regularly bring about memorable never-before-seen moments of magic. As I intend to have Slide in my game (from Sprint + Crouch), I have played Black Ops, Mirror’s Edge, Crysis 2, Killzone: Shadow Fall as well as learning from flawed examples like Brink. There is sufficient overlap between the mechanics of most FPSes to provide a good source for comparing their relative tradeoffs and get a better idea what not to do before building my first prototype.

  8. […] course, since the brain is not an emulator, arguments about what makes games better are even more silly. In argument form, as opposed to […]

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