Are games growing your brain?

I posted about this article on the scientific study of childhood play a while back, but wanted to take some time out to comment. It now appears that the most obvious interpretation of play – that it trains important skills in a safe environment – is wrong. The next theory up to bat is that we play to train our entire brains, not just specific muscles or parts of our brain. I find the correlation with ADHD study particularly interestingly – that ADHD is a symptom of a lack of brain development, and play may be a cure. Play is fundamental to our development.

So what does this mean for games? I find it fascinatingly parallel with my theory that games resemble life more then stories. Games represent systems to be broken down, analyzed, and even conquered. Our interactions are physical and immediate. Our thoughts on games come after we’ve finished with play. Games require looking forward, not reflecting back. What does that imply about the parts of brain we’re training, and how we should design for it? I’m not a neuroscientist, but I am a game designer, and I’d like to speculate.

I find the fiction of games is frequently separate from the mechanics, even when they are heavily connected. In fact, while some mechanics reflect the flavor, others (appropriately) act against flavor. Pushing a button has little in common with the flavor of swinging a sword. Many of the “art” games I love I only play for 15-30 minutes, while I’m sure my World of Warcraft account lists weeks of playing. Is the “analyze” part of the brain separate from the “imagination” part of our brain, with only weak relation between? Are the feelings that Lazzaro cites at the heart of games specific to this “analyze” area? If this area didn’t exist, then we’d expect art games to engross us. Instead, games are even more powerful motivators then museums, concerts, and even books. This area of the brain seems to exist, and our motivation to play suggest it’s important to us. And games seem to be experts at targeting and training this part of the brain.

If so, what does this mean about this mean about how we design games? First of all, clearly the core and focus of our work in games should be on these systems for the brain to break down, comprehend, and analyze. For a while now, we’ve known that flavor is not the core of game design, and that story is problematic. We should not then be surprised if our traditional games are deeper and more interactive then art games, while art games focus more on the post-play reflection and discussion then a traditional game. The artist is trying to communicate something to the player, while the designer is trying to trying to let the user communicate with him. “What do you want to do with my door? You want to open it? Let me help you.”

But evidence also suggests that we should can use these artistic elements to make a well rounded experience, just as movies use music, engaging as much of our brain as possible. These elements just impact a different part of the experience, this reflection part, that occurs afterwards.

The current theory thus seems to expand on what we’ve suspected all along. Reflective mediums like painting, books, and movies are bad models for games. Sports and children’s play are good models. And we shouldn’t expect a particular game to help us hunt prey or do our homework. The act of play appears to make us stronger as a whole. Counter-Strike makes me a deeper thinker, not just a better gun aimer, and that appears to be a very good thing. But there are even higher heights to strive for. The best art games, just like the best games, create an interesting system that when reflected upon highlights new meaning, awakening both of these aspects of the brain. We may ultimately find ourselves having to play artist and designer together.

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