Why Spy?

Imagine you’re a Paleolithic man (or woman). You’re a hunter of course, and sometimes a food gatherer. You spend all your waking hours in the bush and your dominant focus, your primary activity is scanning the world around you for things you can eat. But nature is a master of camouflage. Most of what you eat does not want to be eaten and has evolved to blend into the background, but you too, have evolved to compensate. You’ve developed a fairly sophisticated eye that (coupled with the most powerful brain in the animal kingdom) can create order out of chaos.

In an environment composed of leaves, grasses, tree trunks, stones, shrubs, boulders, color, shadow and creatures of various kinds, you can make accurate, life and death decisions with your eyes and your brain. You know the difference between a distant dust storm and a wildfire. You know that the antelope standing frozen in the meadow before you is not a sapling. You can pick up on the subtle movements that warn when a herd of ruminants is about to stampede. You can spot fruit high in a tree or scan an exposed riverbank for edible plants. Your vision is not the most powerful in the animal kingdom, but your ability to recognize objects and patterns, and derive meanings from them, are second to none.

And then there is that other ability, that other need, that derives from you special brain. Not only do you create an order for your world by observing it, you create meaning. You define what you see. You give it context, you invent names, and mythologies and chronology. You construct narratives that you share with others of your kind through language and images that you scratch on to the walls of your communal home with the burnt end of a stick. You have an insatiable desire to know why and how things happen. And this is how you to learn and improve your chance of survival. You are quite an organism, even with the most primitive of tools, and soon, within a few millennia, your kind will be the most dominant animal on the planet. Your ability to see, organize and interpret will help you rule the world.

Human physiology has not changed much in 30,000 years. Our brains are essentially the same as a spear-throwing, churt-chipping Cro-Magnon’s. We have better clothing now and the means to travel unthinkable distances, and we have perfected the art of growing and saving food. We spend more time poring over spreadsheets and emails then we do sifting through flint quarries or scanning the savannah for vulnerable animals to kill, yet our minds are still restless for the hunt, the search, the life-or-death version of iSpy that, for most of our history, was not a game, but a routine exploration and sifting of visual stimuli whose outcome meant vital nourishment or the avoidance of injury. What does this have to do with games? Everything.

I am not an anthropologist, and this is not a scientific discourse on the biology of the modern gamer. This is simply an observation in response to a question I continue to hear asked at industry events and gatherings of casual game developers. Why do games like the iSpy-esque Mysteryrville and Mystery Case Files series continue to enjoy such immense popularity among casual gamers? Are these games a fad that will eventually pass? In my opinion, the answer is no. Based on what I know (intuitively not scientifically) about the behavior of mature gamers – what they want and what they gravitate towards – these find-the-needle-in-the-haystack ‘mystery’ games are the tip of an iceberg I saw looming in the icy waters of the gaming ocean more than 15 years ago.

Remember MYST? Remember 7th Guest? Those were what we used to call hunt-and-peck games adventure games, but unlike the current crop of iSpy-esque down-loadables of today, they were produced on a grand scale with hundreds of rich scenes where clues and objects and secrets were hidden in lush, densely rendered worlds. Those games (at $79.00 and up) sold in the millions of units. Read that again. Millions. Partly for their novelty, but mainly for their visual richness, the adventure games of yesteryear enthralled regular people (who we call casual gamers now) with vast scavenger hunts and slowly unfolding mysteries. Most players didn’t finish those games because they were just too deep and took too long to complete. But designers in those days had to justify a high price point as well as their own aspirations to transcend the medium and create interactive worlds that would someday transcend film and literature to become the dominant story-telling medium (I count myself among those idealistic fools). So the games were big and Byzantine. The popularity of those behemoth adventure games petered out, but those designers were onto something. They understood that people derive pleasure from searching. They enjoy looking at things that are more than they appear to be. They get a thrill and a satisfaction from looking for things they know are there. Whether it’s the jumble in the daily paper, a Soduku puzzle, a word search or the cover of The Beatles’ Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Heart’s Club Band, human beings inherently enjoy the challenge of finding things that are hidden.

Searching for your lost car keys can be an agonizing and frustrating experience. But if someone were to hide your car keys and then tell you that they were somewhere on your desk, it becomes a game, especially if they give you clues. This is why people love Sherlock Holmes or the locked-room mysteries of Agatha Christie. The answers are all there within the narrative and if you’re clever enough, you’ll find them before the author reveals them to you. The same principal is at work in games like Mystery Case Files. We are shown an image and told that somewhere within that image are several items. The more we find, the more we trust that we’re not being duped and if the game is well-designed we’ll spend hours searching for what we know must be there. There is an innate sense of empowerment in this activity, an affirming satisfaction that our powers of perception are indeed strong. Such games pose no risk of failure and offer us the pleasure of finding hidden things under conditions where the stakes are low. That appeals directly to our primal primate perception; which many believe evolved to find brightly colored fruit amongst the dense foliage of the forest canopy.

I used to read Scholastic’s i-Spy books with my children all the time, and the delight they derived from staring at those images, naming what they saw, discovering things they hadn’t seen before, was palpable. You could look into their eyes and literally see the connections being made. And as I’d track their eye movements, and the movements of their hands as they traced images on the page, and even their lips as they’d mouth words to name what they saw, I couldn’t help but marvel at, what appears to me as, the physical manifestation of perception in the making of the human mind-body machine. Wow. There is simply nothing more powerful, more humbling, than observing children see and relate what they see to the world as they know it. And what I saw in the eyes of my kids was the joy of knowing, the delight of discovery, the satisfaction of the hunt.

This style of games are not a passing fancy. Perhaps the ones set within old creaky houses are, but games built on the foundation of exploring, peeling back layers, scanning visually complex scenes – games that foster the joy of discovery – have always been popular and always will. This genre satisfies the fundamental tenets crucial to successful casual games. There’s zero learning curve. The UI is point and click. There’s a high ratio of reward to effort. The graphics are rich, tactile, familiar. They lend themselves to stories and interesting themes. They play off of activities we already know and, I think more importantly, the game play occurs mostly in the mind of the players tapping into our most basic sensory instincts. These games do not rely upon hand-eye coordination or skills with fingers and mouse. They rely upon our innate powers of observation and memory. And we all have that in spades. You can be five or eighty, but the thrill of recognition is there, working behind the scenes in every thing we do.

It is clear that both biology and psychology factor heavily into game design. We’re tapping into needs, reflexes and behaviors hard-wired into our brains, and I haven’t even mentioned Gestalt theory or the evolution of the human eye, or visual pattern recognition.

We have not even scratched the surface of what we can do with games and interactive entertainment, but one thing is for certain, in order to move forward we have to look back. Way back. Who are we? What did we evolve to do? It wasn’t sitting around answering emails all day that’s for sure, and when I close my eyes and imagine myself as a primitive hunter 25,000 years ago, sitting on the floor of a cave in Lascaux France after a long, hard day of tracking deer, I see myself staring up at the ceiling and the walls, at all those bison and lions and deer, and playing a game that looks a lot like iSpy.


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 currently works at iWin.com and can be reached for comment at [email protected]

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