The Digital Divide Part II: Machines Meet Meat

Last time on The Digital Divide

…the biggest difference between digital and non-digital games is … the power of computers…

…humans are really bad at a lot of … stuff…

Computers have vast and nearly perfect memories … can perform thousands of calculations a second … computers are happy…

In short, I discussed how computers have opened up design space for games. Today, I want to explain why the picture might not be as rosy as it seems.

But I’ll start with a question. Given the amazing advances in computer processing power and memory, not to mention the ridiculous budgets many games have, why is it that most improvements in digital games are graphical? It’s true, the graphics have improved substantially, and there have been other improvements as well, such as new input devices and physics advances. Still, the vast majority of new resources in games is dedicated to better graphics. Why?

There are probably business reasons, to be sure—pretty graphics sell. Still, I think there’s something more fundamental going on here.

The Occipital, Parietal, and Temporal lobes all play important roles in visual processing. That’s a lot of lobes!

If you look at a brain map like this one (courtesy of wikipedia), you’ll see how much real estate is dedicated to our visual system. The Occipital lobe is totally dedicated to seeing things, while the Parietal lobe supports all of our senses and the Temporal lobe helps process complex scenes and faces. When so much of a player’s processing power is dedicated to visual processing, it should be no surprise that so much of a computer’s processing will be dedicated to creating visual experiences.

Furthermore, humans (along with many, many other animals) must navigate through the three dimensional space and physics of the actual world as a matter of survival. This is built into our brains at a fundamental level, so it should come as no surprise that the games we play recreate those physics and somethings even experiment with variations on them.

What I’m getting at here is simple: despite the incredible processing power and memories of computers, the games we create using them will be limited by their target audience, humans.

Now, you might be thinking that it’s not just the player’s fault that digital games are limited, since humans are creating the games as well. That may be true, but there are a couple of reasons I think this is less limiting than the players’ influence.

First off, the designer doesn’t have to fully understand a game in order to create it. This is especially true for bigger studios, when there could be many designers working on a single game, none of which has a complete understanding of the total game system. Do you think any one person knows all the loot drop probabilities of World of Warcraft? Players also don’t need to fully understand a system, but each needs to at least have some ideas about what to do and have a rough idea of how he or she fits in the whole. Otherwise, it’s unlikely the player will play for long.

Second, players are going to have a much more difficult time grasping a game anyway. It’s very possible for a designer to fully understand a complex system making use of the computer in a sophisticated way, but the intricacies of how it works will be completely opaque to the player, except for when the designer reveals it. The player may struggle to get even a basic grasp of the game. Games like this will have to dedicate a ton of resources to a UI to communicate to the player what is going on under the hood, and still the player will probably struggle to understand. These games will turn into a challenge of patience for the player: am I willing to put up with the unfun learning part so I might be able to enjoy the actual game some day?

Exceptions to Prove the Rule

While most games have dedicated their extra computer resources to graphics, it’s certainly not the case that all have. There are a number of daring game designers out there pushing the limits of digital game design, but in many ways, their struggles showcase why so few are doing it.

Take Chris Crawford as an example. For those of you unfamiliar with him, he has been extremely influential on game design, being one of the pioneers of game design as its own field as well as founding the Game Developer Conference. He has also dedicated himself to solving one of the biggest challenges in game design for the last couple of decades: interactive narrative. But I’m getting a bit ahead of myself.

Balance of the Planet features an impressively powerful and incomprehensible simulation. Image from Moby Games.

I actually want to talk about a game Crawford made right before he rejected the mainstream game industry, Balance of the Planet. Crawford believed so much that humanity’s reckless disregard for the environment would lead to major disasters, and believed so much that games could help correct the problem, that he dumped much of his life’s savings to create the game. The game itself makes the player a policymaker with the task of making decisions to try to avert crises that threaten humanity without collapsing the economy. A sophisticated and powerful simulation drives the whole thing, translating player choices into likely depressing outcomes.

The problem? The system is just too complex and alien for most people to understand. Now, admittedly, teaching people about the system is one of the reasons for it to exist, but the experience of learning it involves a series of frustrating and confusing losses. It’s annoying enough that it’s just not fun enough to bother with.

I mentioned earlier that Crawford has dedicated himself for many years to the pursuit of interactive fiction, in many ways the holy grail of game design. After all, if sensory processing was one of the driving factors in the ballooning of the mammal brain, many people believe that the formation of large communities with their intricate politics and quirky individuals drove the blossoming of the uniquely huge human brain. Shouldn’t people be able to understand and enjoy a game based on social interaction?

Perhaps this is a problem with the designer side, rather than player side, but it has remained elusive. Games have certainly made progress in this direction, though generally with limitations. Will Wright and EA have made a huge commercial success with The Sims, for example, but that game lacks driving goals and interpersonal conversation is abstracted to the point of gibberish. Michael Mateas and Andrew Stern also made a huge stride with Façade, but the game is short, topics of conversation very limited, and it seems like many people have enjoyed the system most by gaming it.

Much of Prom Week is dedicated to explaining what’s going on behind the scenes to the player. Image from

Another example of a big stride forward in this area is the Expressive Intelligence Studio’s recent social simulator (and Indiecade finalist!) Prom Week. This game is all about the drama of teenagers leading up to their big dance, and while lots of fun, dedicates much of its resources to trying to explain to the player what the heck is going on. This means that much of what playing Prom Week involves is trying to understand the underlying social system. Sadly, that system does not mimic real social systems like we can mimic real physics systems, so a player’s evolved brain cannot naturally grasp it.

And Cardboard?

You might be asking yourself, what does this have to do with comparing digital and non-digital games? Could board games do any better?

Well, first off, I just think it’s incredibly important to remember who you’re making games for: humans. It can be tempting to wield your machine’s power to its full potential, especially if you come from an engineering background, but this often is the wrong decision from a game design perspective.

Second, in some ways, board games can do better! In the simulation department, non-digital games will probably never really compete, and a single player social based board game sounds dreadful. However, as long as you don’t mind playing with other people, many non-digital games offer social and political play, including a game being designed by yours truly!

But I’m getting a bit ahead of myself again, and this time you’ll have to wait for my next post to hear more about how non-digital games actually have a leg up on digital games in some ways.

Update: Part III is now up.

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  1. » The Digital Divide Part I: Computers are Awesome Nothing Sacred Games
  2. » The Digital Divide Part III: Humans are Pretty Cool Too Nothing Sacred Games

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