Light. Colors. High contrast patterns and soothing musical tones. Movement. Texture. Repetitive motion and intermittent surprise. Sound familiar? It sounds like I’m describing the formula for the basic criteria for a casual game, but I’m actually describing an early childhood development toy hanging above an infant’s bed. And as I was looking at this thing, watching it play music and spin, it occurred to me that casual games function to stimulate a gamers’ brain much like a Fisher-Price mobile works on the mind of a small child.
What’s going on here? Is it merely a coincidence that the same types of stimuli that work to engage the primitive (relatively speaking) senses of a baby are also present at the root level of many popular casual games? Absolutely not. Human beings all share the same basic instincts to explore their environments and investigate what we perceive. A good casual game (one with true longevity and mass appeal) will stimulate our curiosity and reward us for investing time within its world. But how does it do that?
A good game must engage us at both the conscious and, more importantly, the subconscious level. And like a film or a novel it must be immersive, sucking us into its world (no matter how simple that world may be) so seamlessly that we don’t even realize that we’re leaving one reality and entering another. A game is an alternate reality, perhaps not a thoroughly convincing one, but a reality none the less, and gamers know instantly when it works and when it doesn’t. Why? Sense details. Let me explain.
I’m going to take a page from master fiction guru John Gardner. Physical detail, Gardner says, pulls us into a story. It works the same way to pull us into a game. Gardner goes on to say that physical detail creates for us a kind of dream, a rich and vivid play in our minds. If we see and we hear, we believe. Through shapes and colors and movement and sound, game creators build for us a kind of dream, an exploratory sandbox through which we satisfy our urge to investigate and learn. Great casual games tap into our primitive senses at the same basic level as crib toy. Color, sound, light, soothing tones, kinetic energy, simplicity, gracefulness, elegance -these concepts are at work in toys for children and in classic casual games like JewelQuest and Luxor.
Casual games appeal to those base instincts that all humans share and the stimuli to which all humans gravitate – the instinct to explore and investigate our world. There’s more psychology going here than in any other form of digital entertainment. Our curiosity is stimulated by the basic game mechanic; which in the old days we used to call the kernel of gameplay. The kernel of gameplay is the very core of the game experience. The falling jewels in JewelQuest, the chain of shiny rolling sphere’s of Luxor. This basic action piques our interest and pulls us in, while color, texture, light, sound, elements of jeopardy and perceived danger, systems of rewards and patterns of recognition hold us and compel us to explore further. We’re getting very basic here, but the point is that the gamer is won or lost quickly based on some fairly primitive perceptions and drives. What’s going on here?
Zoologist Desmond Norris, in his 1967 classic The Naked Ape sheds some light on something that I’ve always felt but have never been able to articulate.
"All mammals have a strong exploratory urge but for some it is more crucial than others…the opportunists of the animal world (humans chief among them) can never afford to relax. They are never sure of where their next meal is coming from, and they have to know every nook and cranny, test every possibility and keep a sharp look-out for the lucky chance. They must explore and keep on exploring. They must investigate, and keep on re-checking. They must have a constantly high level of curiosity…we never stop investigating. We are never satisfied that we know enough to get by. Every question we answer leads to another question. This has become the greatest survival trick of our species…(this) tendency to be attracted by novelty…(gives us) valuable experience to be stored away and called upon when needed at a later date…"1
Casual games tap into the human urge to investigate and explore, our attraction to the novel experience and our delight at discovery; especially when we discover the pleasantly unexpected. Morris goes on to say:
"The start of this interest (in exploring) has something to do with the investigation-reward principle of obtaining disproportionately large results from the expenditure of comparatively little energy….those actions that produce an unexpectedly increased feedback are the most satisfying….in painting, sculpture, drawing, singing, dancing, games, writing and speech, we carry on to our heart’s content, all through our long lives, complex and specialized forms of exploration and experiment…these activities all emerge biologically, either as the extension into adult life of infantile play-patterns, or as the super-imposition on to adult information-communication systems of ‘play-rules’."1
And what are those rules? According to Morris there are six of them, and I think they apply to both gamers and game creators alike. The rules are:
You shall investigate the unfamiliar until it becomes familiar
You shall impose rhythmic repetition on the familiar
You shall vary this repetition in as many ways as possible
You shall select the most satisfying of these variations and develop these at the expense of others
You shall combine and recombine these variations with each other
You shall do this for its own sake, and as an end in itself1
Here I paraphrase Morris: These rules apply whether you are considering an infant playing in the sand or a composer working on a symphony, or a gamer playing in simulated reality or a game designer creating one!
The genesis of a casual game’s development should begin from these very basic premises and evolve, organically, over time, through thought, through experimentation and through the subconscious of the game’s creators. You cannot make a strong, addictive casual game that does not spring from such a process. Games are getting more and more complex. As we add stories and characters and community features we sometimes forget that less is more and keeping it simple is not stupid.
This seems to fly in the face of what I said last week regarding richer gaming experiences, but the same principles apply even to those kinds of games. Ultimately size doesn’t matter, design matters, and in my never ending quest to understand how the human mind works in regards how it digests stories and games I found Morris’ observations about apes (both naked and furry) to be cathartic. What do you think?
Quotes from The Naked Ape, © 1967, Desmond Morris
Vinny Carrella wrote and directed Bad Mojo, the 2004 Adventure Game of the Year and has writing and design credits on award-winning games such as Iron Helix and Space Bunnies Must Die! His debut novel, Serpent Box (Harper-Collins, Perennial) is due out in the Summer of 2007. He is currently spearheading developer outreach and content acquisition at iWin.com and can be reached for comment at firstname.lastname@example.org