Halo 3: Brain Games

[photopress:brain_on_halo_3.jpg,full,alignleft]A few weeks ago, WIRED published an interesting story on the massive amount of testing that has gone into producing Halo 3. The biggest part of this has been usability testing to ensure that the game is continuously playable. By eliminating places where most players get hopelessly lost, or killed many times in a row, they reduce frustration with the game and keep players engaged. Some of the data is from observing players through one-way mirrors, some from data collection (mapping player routes, aggregating data from many players into scattergrams, etc.), and some from self-reporting by the game players themselves:

Some tests include a pop-up box that interrupts the player every few minutes, asking them to rate how engaged, interested, or frustrated they are. Pagulayan also has gamers talk out loud about what they’re experiencing, providing a stream-of-consciousness record of their thought process as they play. Over time, he’s gathered voluminous stats on player locations, weapons, and vehicles. [From WIRED: Halo 3: How Microsoft Labs Invented a New Science of Play.]

All this work makes a lot of sense – many games never catch on because of playability flaws, and Halo 3 has to be near-perfect if it’s going to vault the Xbox 360 past the Sony PlayStation 3 and the Nintendo Wii. In poorly designed games, players get lost in a maze of corridors and end up wandering randomly looking for an exit, or get killed so quickly at some point that they can’t even determine a strategy to progress. A little challenge is a good thing in playing a game; if a novice player could complete the game in one sitting, it would be far too boring. The trick is to keep the player engaged so that he keeps coming back for more. The best games are truly addictive – hours slip by during gameplay, and if a player is killed he immediately resumes play with renewed energy and improved strategy.

Just about every successful game has a reward structure built in. Rewards come in all shapes and sizes. Blasting an enemy to smithereens can be one, as can progressing to a new level, discovering a hidden cave, and so on. Some games have used simplistic rewards, such as allowing the player to pick up coins, jewels, etc. Presumably, those rewards fit pre-defined reward categories in our brain – we would all know what to do in real life if we saw a ten dollar bill on the ground. Even simple games like Tetris reward the player by eliminating completed rows of blocks, accompanied by sound and visual stimuli.

Complex battle games like Halo 3 presumably work other areas of our brain – those related to threats, “fight or flight,” and so on. All of this begs the question: why doesn’t this incredible Microsoft game lab do some neuroscience testing, too? Instead of just interrupting players to ask how they feel, why not monitor brain activation during different parts of game play using fMRI, EEG, or similar techniques? Even physiological monitoring (pulse rate, galvanic skin response, etc.) might yield some data. Other options might include facial coding evaluation and eye tracking. Presumably, the scan data could be correlated both with self-reported feelings about engagement with the game as well as more concrete measures, like duration of gameplay, reaction times, etc.

In game play, addiction is a good thing (at least from the designer’s standpoint) – comparing what’s going on in game players’ brains to activity induced by other addictive behaviors might also be an interesting avenue to explore. We aren’t saying that compulsive game playing is desirable; however, the developer’s goal is to make the game as engaging and difficult to leave as possible. It’s up to the player to set appropriate limits. (We do note that the game design researchers at XEODesign have looked at the emotions involved in game playing, and that they have apparently worked with Microsoft.)

Games like Halo 3 are really nothing more than direct interaction between machine and brain, and it’s surprising that we haven’t seen more neuromarketing-style analysis of player behavior. Then again, perhaps there’s a part of the game testing lab that Microsoft didn’t let WIRED writer Clive Thompson see…

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Roger Dooley writes and speaks about marketing, and in particular the use of neuroscience and behavioral research to make advertising, marketing, and products better. He is the primary author at Neuromarketing, and founder of Dooley Direct LLC, a marketing consultancy. Follow him on Twitter.

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