Sunday, April 6, 2008


Presence in psychology is defined as the perceptual illusion that a mediated environment is not mediated [4]. This translates in the game world as what is commonly referred to as suspension of disbelief. In order to generate complex emotions and excitement in games we absolutely must have the player believe that what they are doing is real and therefore matters. In this entry I will be discussing some factors that effect this idea of presence in video games.

The Uncanny Valley

In 1970 a Japanese roboticist, Masahiro Mori, published an article in Energy describing a phenomenon in which human-like robots produced a rising emotional response in people the closer the robots looked to being human. This fact wasn’t surprising, what was surprising is what happened when the robots became almost but not quite human. In this case, instead of the emotional response rising positive further, the emotional response became negative. The reason for this is largely ignored by Mori but he does speculate it has something to do with the process of dying.

By now many of you have heard about the Uncanny Valley, it is my hope that you will heed this tale when deciding for or against the latest photorealistic avatars. It doesn’t do you any good to have great looking characters if all they do is generate neutral or even negative responses. Remember that even cartoon characters have created wonderful feelings in all of us for generations. Special care must be taken when play testing your games, you will know good responses when you feel it (and if you don’t you need to change it till you do).

The whole purpose in having emotionally responsive characters is empathy. This is the greatest tool in the arsenal of game designers and the hardest so far to master. Once a player cares about even one character, a whole world of possible player button pushing can happen and that is the reason for creating a game. I will blog extensively about empathy in the future.


In life people formulate rules about how their world operates. When these rules breakdown a person will become confused and intrigued as they attempt to either reconcile the event with their belief system or amend it to accommodate the anomaly. Unfortunately the same is not true when a person plays a video game. When a player comes across a floating coffee cup in a game they are simply reminded that they are not engaged with reality. This of course has negative consequences for the suspension of disbelief. What story tellers and film makers have known for a long time is that it is not the ‘realness’ of the event that determines presence in audience but where or not there is a believable explanation for that event. So for your game, you should always take time to provide rationales for your game reality, whether it be for ‘unreal’ events or for events that did not happen but should considering the audiences reality baggage.

One way to accomplish believability in your explanations is to take the Stephen Spielberg approach. He is famous for creating wonderful and magical worlds but there is one thing in common with every fantasy; they start out with the audiences notion of reality. As long as you begin your game in reality you can take the audience anywhere.
Expectation is also talked about in Adrian Lopez’s blog Theory and Principles of Game Design.

The following are some specific examples of expectation and the preservation of presence.

Boundary Conditions

It is understandable that game environments can not be as extensive as the world we live in. This doesn’t mean that we can put up a small fence at the edge of the map and have the player believe that they couldn’t just jump over it.

Instead of lazily using the weak and clique try creating plausible boundaries for the player. Ideally these Boundary Conditions should make sense and be consistent with the game world and story. Remember to never use a boundary if later those conditions are passable by the player. Also, if exceeding the boundary will kill the player then make it clear to the player that a boundary condition is occurring.


Removing control from the player reminds them of the control itself. While in-game cinematics may attempt to further the plot they ruin immersion for the player. In any case, cut scenes are far weaker then the player controlling the advancement of the story.


When people die in the real world they are gone forever. The same is largely true for the linear stories of novels and films. Video games, however, allow for death to become nothing more than a hindrance. Not only does the death of a player kill suspension it kills tension too.

Saturday, April 5, 2008

Implicit Biases

As games designers we need to know about the current emotional and cognitive states of our players. The director of a film relies on the fact the viewer is forced to watch each moment in an exact sequence. This means the director have a pretty good idea of what is going on in the hearts and minds of the audience. They use this knowledge to enhance or surprise the viewer and create the desired emotional roller-coaster ride. You want to do this to your player right? Well, games pose a different challenge, the player can be doing almost anything at anytime in almost any order. How can the designer know when to provide the correct stimuli at the precise moment in time? What we as game designers need is real-time input of what the player is doing and feeling. The doing part is already taken care of but the feeling part is elusive. Recently companies like Emotiv have announced consumer priced EEG machines that can read some of the emotions in the players. This is great but some things can not be read by a machine (yet). In this blog I will talk about a technique some genius Harvard professors have created to read some pretty complex feelings in people and how this technique can be used in our games.

First a scenario: Act I - Great warrior battles hordes of bad guys. Act II - Great warrior battles hordes of bad guys. Act III - Great warrior battles hordes of bad guys and wins.

Sound interesting? No, but that’s what many games come down to. Here’s a modified scenario: Act 1 - Great warrior battles hordes of bad guys. Act II - Great warrior finds out bad guys are the good guys. Act III - Great warrior must battle his once comrades and wins.

This second example is only slightly more interesting but it will do for our purposes. In the world of movies this second scenario would play out reasonably well with most of the audience. The writer, director, and editor would provide the correct setups (like the Great warrior perceives the bad guys killing the one he loves) and surprises (Great warrior finds out the one he loves is alive and working for the ‘bad guys’). The problem in the movie world and everywhere else is while designers of the film are pretty certain of the feelings of the audience they still don’t really know. The worst part is that it will be different for everyone. This forces the designers to ‘hit the audience over the head’ which pisses off some people will still missing others. Its not an exact science. Would it be great if you did know what the audience felt of the bad guys so that at the right moment you could surprise them? If you answer no you are reading the wrong blog. If you answer yes then he is how you do it - The Implicit Associations Test. As mentioned a team of Harvard professors came up with a way to measure the unconscious biases of people toward some entity. In the real IAT test the entities are African Americans or women in science (the tests are largely political). But nothing is stopping someone from measuring biases against say the evil clan of - insert your game’s bad guys here. How the test works is brilliant - it measures your reaction time in categorizing items. You are faster at categorizing items when your associations agree then when they do not agree. I don’t have enough time to try and fully explain the test but an exercise is worth a thousand words. I strongly suggest you now go to and take one of the tests. I recommend taking the race test as 80% of the participants found out they have an implicit association with white Europeans and good; and with African Americans and bad. You may found out something about yourself you didn’t know. When you are finished come back and I’ll give you hints for making this test work in your game.

Done? Did you see how the test is done? Pretty slick huh? I got a sick feeling in my stomach when it was taking me slightly longer to categorize good with African American. Even half of African Americans did the same on the test. Anyway, done with politics and back to game design.

What you need to do is translate the mechanics of that test to a video game scenario. The key, of course, is not stopping the game and making them take a test. Imagine instead setting up a timed action scene where the player must navigate through a maze, constantly choosing between the left or the right. Or how about a scene where the player must quickly shoot as good or bad guys pop out. What needs to be added is some kind of association. You need an external symbol that the player automatically recognizes as good or bad (internal imagery can work too but you need to setup strong symbols). Once you have the symbols you need to present them in pairs with either the bad guys themselves or yet another symbol representing the bad guys. Keep in mind that you need to do things like control for speed of categorizing and left and right biases.

This blog is getting way too long so unhappily I am going to cut it short. If anyone actually cares enough maybe I’ll take the time to write another blog with more detail and even some of the math. I won’t lie, setting up this test in your game could be a lot of work, but the playoff would be fantastic!

Wednesday, April 18, 2007


In Rules of Play [1]Salen and Zimmerman call for and attempt to establish a critical discourse for game design and I believe the job they started is solid ground for all of us to stand on. All copy within my blogs will [attempt to] rest as firmly as I can within their framework. For those who are unfamiliar with this work, I am posting a glossary using the definitions spelled out in Rules of Play.