Cult of the Turtle

Joe Tortuga's musing on life,tech and gaming

More than One Kind of Experience

March 10, 2010

I’m reading Schell’s Art of Game Design: A Book of Lenses, which took me a while to pick up after his DICE talk which destroyed some of his credibility to me. The book, though, is a good one, and while I’m not far into it, the idea that Game Designers’ job is to create an Experience that arises out of a game. (I’d say, that except for the ‘game’ parts of that sentence, this is what creatives of all stripes do be they fiction or blog writers, painters, sculptors or something else.)

Then, earlier this week, I saw a TED talk, by Daniel Kahneman, the Nobel prize winning founder of behavioral economics. He talks a lot about happiness, and two ways in which we view happiness.  This can be expanded, I think to two ways in which we view anything that happens to us.  One of those minds he called the experiencing mind, the part of us totally in the now (or at least a 3 second-moment); the other he calls the remembering mind, which is the storytelling part of us, that reflects on the experiences.  These two minds are often in conflict and give different answers to the same question.

I’ve heard these called the visceral and reflective minds, with the behavioral mind added as a third. (While I may have the terms slightly off, this is in Norman’s Emotional Design.) That analysis is a bit better for games, and I’ll want to talk about the behavioral mind later.  It has less direct impact on our thoughts and emotions as the visceral and reflective minds.

The visceral mind is the one that experiences things. That’s what it does. It has an immediate reaction to them, one that is often fed more from emotion than from logic. It’s where we experience joy and sadness, ecstasy and despair.  The reflective mind doesn’t do this, although it can conjure those emotions in the visceral mind — because reflection itself, is an experience that we are doing at a moment in time.

The reflective mind is the storytelling mind.  It thinks back on the experiences, and says, “That was fun.” or “I enjoyed that.” or “It was good until the end, too bad the ending spoiled the whole thing.”  Of course the visceral mind was having fun there, right up until the end.  But the reflective mind just can’t shake how bad that ending was, and it obliterates all those other, theoretically good, experiences you’d had up until then.

What does this mean for games?

A lot, I think.  The visceral mind enjoys the moment-to-moment aspect of the game, and the reflexive enjoys the memory of the playing.  This is why endings are so important, as it’s what the reflexive mind will enjoy.  I think this has a lot to say about short games vs long games, fun vs serious games, and even can inform our discussions about cutscenes.

Different games respond or entertain  the different minds.  Tetris is a visceral experience.  We don’t typically weave a long story about playing the game, or say much about it. A game like Final Fantasy may not engage the visceral mind much at all, with turn based battles and long story segments. We remember the story of it, perhaps more than the long boring sections because the reflexive mind edits out redundant things (just like it does with Tetris).

We have to understand this to understand how games work, in order to design them and talk about them reasonably (particularly since it’s the reflexive part of our mind that does the talking about part).I think a lot of our discussions about what should and shouldn’t be in a game (eg “fun”) come from a misunderstanding of those two ways of experiencing games.

Neither side is right or wrong, but they are comparing two different kinds of things.  And we haven’t even gotten to the behavioral mind, because it doesn’t experience so much as do.  I’m going to be looking into these debase over the next few weeks, looking at how they can enlighten our game design, and hopefully tying it into liminality (which my intuition says is a reflective property that affects the visceral).