ConsciousnessReframed III
Neuropsychology and Game Design
Jussi Holopainen & Stephan Meyers

This paper discusses the role of dramatic and predictiveclosure and temporal and somatic displacement in the design ofgames, especially computer games. Each of these elements is drawnon the physical characteristics of the human brain and correspondingmind structures. We further argue that enjoyment in game playis a product of these evolutionary features, and that the mostsuccessful game design presents the user with the opportunityto seek closure and to displace the sense of self.

Keywords: game design, computer games, dramatic closure,predictive closure, temporal displacement, somatic displacement

  1. Introduction

    This paper proposes a model for studying elements of gamedesign rooted in neuropsychology. By examining these elementsin a context of other forms of art and the biological functionsof the intended audience, we hope to point the way for furtheraesthetic advancement in this most lively new form.

    We argue that enjoyment in game play is a product of the evolutionof the human mind, an increasingly common point of view in thefield. InTheAmbiguity of PlaySutton-Smith (1996) indicates:

    "Play [is] a reinforcement of potential synaptic variabilitythrough the performance of variable antics, and... as a fullerimitation of the evolutionary process itself, in which the organismmodels its own biological character"

    It is important to make the distinction between pure, or "free"play and games with codified rules. The former is observed invirtually all mammals and some species of birds, while the latterappears to be exclusively confined to homo sapiens [1].

    The most successful game designs present the user with theopportunity to seek closure and to displace the sense of self.These two features evolved in the brain to support survival andsocial stability.

  2. Closure
    1. Predictive closure

      Predictive closure is the capacity of the mind to suggestconsistent completion of a mental model, filling informationgaps with a reasonable inference based on witsh learned information.The effects of this form of closure are familiar in many fieldsincluding vision, psychology and art, and simple closure is presentin animals with far less developed neural systems than humanbeings.

      If, for example, a predator is only partly visible, closureenables potential prey to assume that the rest of the predatorexists. "In an incomplete world, we must depend on closurefor our very survival" ( McCloud1994)

      The human mind extends the quest for closure from these earlyvision processes to higher levels of conscious thinking, in orderto maximize the pleasure induced by successful closure (Ramachandran&Hirstein1999). Artists began to employ predictive closure en masse withthe Op Art movement, incorporating gestalt closure and otheroptical illusions from the study of vision into their art. Theplayer extends predictive closure towards a game, thus formingthe first part of a feedback loop that is inherent to enjoyment.This urge for completion underlies our interest in hearing theend of a piece of music, or seeing the end of a movie - the loopsof prediction have been opened in the mind of the audience, andwe will not rest until we find out what happens.

    2. Dramatic Closure

      Dramatic closure is a feature common to many forms of art,including literature, music, and computer games. It appears tostem from the property of consciousness that requires formationof a story structure, or internal dialouge. This personal storytellingallows the mind to maintain a stable identity and a sense ofself. (Dennett 1992)

      This form of closure has been adequately described in thecases of drama (Hiltunen 1999) and music (Hofstadter 1979), explaininghow satisfaction arises from the resolution of tension. However,there has been little academic exploration of the aesthetic usesof tension and release in game design, although designers themselvesare well aware of this structure (Falstein 1999).

      The simplest example of dramatic closure may be found in thepopular game TetrisWhile the drama of Tetris is simple, it is clear-cut - the playersucceeds, or fails, a single row at a time, defeating an enemythat emerges from chaos. The individual quadrominoes begin totake on an archetypical character: the linear piece is the saviour;the s-shaped piece, the trickster in two forms. In some sense,each player's journey through the state space of the game isa tiny epic, overcoming obstacles to defeat a greater evil.

      However, Tetris never permits the final, highest level ofclosure - the game only ends when the player has failed at aseries of smaller closures. This is the root of the addictivenessof the game - it causes a state of tension that can never befulfilled, but can be temporarily sated by further small closures.The falling blocks which fill the minds of devoted players aremuch akin to the melody which rings in your ears after the songis gone, parodied in "Who Framed Roger Rabbit." Rogeris drama incarnate, and is done in by the need for closure.

    3. Relationship between Dramatic and Predictive Closure

    These two forms of closure create a feedback loop betweenthem, where the expectation of resolution drives the player toperform the actions needed to reach closure. Typically, theseactions are repetitive, and in a well-structured game, therewill be multiple hierarchical levels of sub-closures.

    In Miyamoto's landmarkTheLegend of Zelda: Ocarina of TimeLink is driven to afinal resolution, saving the land of faeries, through a seriesof subquests in which he rescues representatives of air, earth,fire, and water. Song structure is one element used to createthis dramatic tension, as the player must learn and play melodiesand different times in the game to drive the action.

    Link begins the game as a young boy, around ten years of age,and he is introduced to a pony, Epona. Her keeper teaches Link"Epona's Song", and the horse bonds with Link. Learningthe song is itself a small puzzle, with a minor closure of itsown. Later in the game, Link has aged, and is now a young man.When he plays the same haunting melody, the fully-grown Epona,now running wild in a ruined land, remembers the song, and willthus serve as his loyal steed.

  3. Displacement
    1. Somatic

      Somatic displacement refers to the ability of a person toproject the mental model of his or her own identity into anotherphysical form, which represents the player in an alternate environment.There are some examples of somatic displacement in other humanactivities, such as driving a car - successful automotive navigationrequires the driver to project their body image to the physicallimits of a car. When one is involved in a car accident, onetypically says "he hit me!" rather than "his carhit my car!"

      Many games play upon this form of displacement of the self.For example, computer games set in the third person require auser to project their self-image into the character on the screen.First person games require the user to project their entire bodyimage into a virtual environment, a phenomenon referred to commonlyas immersion.

      Krueger (2000) noted that users have little trouble projectingtheir body image into their representation naturally, even ifthis representation is highly distorted, such as by perspective.Indeed, it is difficult not to displace your representation intoa physical form you control.

      "The brain is wired to understand... faces and bodies...It is surprisingly easy to control your flat hand in a 3D space,even when mapped onto a curved plane."

      This physical displacement of self is familiar to many gameplayers, and accounts for some of the most appealing and populargames. The chart-toppingTombRaiderseries, for example, projects the player into thepneumatic body of Lara Croft, a beautiful and athletic youngwoman. She is capable of running, jumping, and doing perfectbackflips in pursuit of her many quests, this providing playerswith a the vicarious thrill of physical mastery.

      In several of the Super Mario games, Mario acquires the giftof flight. Interestingly, his form of flight is that form familiarto from dreams - a temporary swooping release from the bondsof gravity. The fact that this skill is not innate, and can onlybe acquired as an aspect of a magic hat, the thrill of achievementat the point of first becoming airborne is tangible, typicallyleaving the player breathless.

      Physical displacement does not seem to be required in gamesin general - abstract games such as Tetris and chess, for example,both have have very weak displacement, if any. However, in representationalgames, this displacement is required to insert the ego of theuser into the closure loop, so that a reward will be perceivedas coming "to" the user, rather than to make it anabstraction. This phenomenon is very similar to identificationwith a character in a movie, for example, except that there israrely much physical engagement in cinema.

    2. Temporal

      Temporal Displacement is the prediction of hypothetical situations,including the predicted point of view of another person. InTheFeeling of What HappensDamasio (1999) explains the neuralbasis for the self and its displacement, which Damasio callsthe "extended consciousness"

      "Extended consciousness goes beyond the here and nowof core consciousness, both backward and forward. The here andnow is still there, but it is flanked by the past, as much pastas you may need to illuminate the now effectively, and just asimportantly, it is flanked by the anticipated future."

      Survival endowed us with the ability to predict the futurebased on our mental models, which allowed us to survive and flourishbeyond all other creatures. Any complex game play requires this.InTheMan Who Mistook His Wife For A HatSacks relates an anecdoteabout the Lost Mariner, a man who suffered from neurologicaldamage that reduced his active memory to a span of roughly oneminute. Locked in a perpetual now, he was able to play simplegames and puzzles, such as tic-tac-toe, but unable to extendhis working memory or conception of future event well enoughto engage in more complex games such as chess.

      It is possible that the Lost Mariner, an inexperienced chessplayer, merely lacked the attention span to maintain a mentalmodel of a game long enough to select a suitable move. It seemsmore likely, however, that he lacked the ability to displacehimself into the future and understand the effects of his moves.

    3. Relationship between Temporal and Somatic Displacement

    While temporal displacement is a requirement for survival\- even less intellectually advanced species than ourselves canmake some predictions about the future - somatic displacementappears to be a modern phenomenon, linked to the use of technologicaladvancements. Indeed, this capacity for projection of the egois rather surprising, as related by Krueger (2000):

    "I realized that the image as a representation ofthe person is instinctive. It was as if the DNA didn't care ifit was in this or that body. The image was an extension to theself, and what happens to the image seems to happen to the person...We had two cameras set up, one pointed at each of our computerscreens, and the two images composited together. His hand wasreaching up from the bottom; my hand could reach up from thetop. At one moment, the image of my hand touched the image ofhis hand, and he suddenly jerked his hand away. He didn't wantto hold hands with me! Well, my feelings were hurt but I thoughtthis was a revelation."

    What evolutionary advantage could this skill confer? A bestguess might be that it it is a natural extension of the abilityto displace ourselves temporally. The ability to imagine yourselfin a different time is the same as the ability to imagine yourselfin a different body.

  4. Conclusions

    Computer games are, in the authors' opinon, the most importantform of art being made at the turn of the century. While theyhave many structural features in common with other media, thereare a number of unique aspects that have not been deeply studiedin this context. At least two of these, displacement and closure,can be discussed in terms of their neuropsychological basis,thus shedding light on factors that distinguish an aestheticallypleasing experience from one that is less successful.

  5. Notes

    [1] Even though there have been some cases of apparent gameplay in young mammals (Fagen 1981), such as "king of thehill," the rules may not be strictly codified from theirpoint of view; we might be anthropomorphizing, imposing our ownstandards on spontaneously arising play behaviour.

  6. References

Damasio, A.R., 1999.TheFeeling of What Happens: Body and Emotion in the Making of ConsciousnessNew York: Harcourt Brace & Company, p.195

Dennett, D. 1992. The Self as a Center of Narrative Gravity.In Kessel, F., Cole, P. and Johnson, D., eds. Self and Consciousness:Multiple Perspectives, Hillsdale, NJ: Erlbaum

Fagen, R. 1981.AnimalPlay BehaviorNew York: Oxford University Press

> Falstein, N\. 1999.A Grand Unified Game Theory. In 1999GameDevelopers ConferenceProceedings. San Fransisco: Miller Freeman,pp. 229-239

Hiltunen, A. 1999. Aristoteles Hollywoodissa: menestystarinananatomia. Helsinki: Gaudeamus

Hofstadter, D.R. 1979.Gödel,Escher, Bach: An Eternal Golden BraidNew York: Vintage Books

> Krueger,M, March 5, 2000 Unpublished talk for Alien Intelligence at KiasmaHelsinki

> McCloud, S. 1994.UnderstandingComics\. New York: Harper Collins, p.63

Ramachandran, V.S. and Hirstein, W. 1999. The Science of Art.In Journal of Consciousness Studies, June/July 1999. Thorverton,UK: Imprint Academic, p.30

Sacks, O.W. 1985.TheMan Who Mistook His Wife for a HatLondon: Duckworth.

Sutton-Smith, B. 1997.TheAmbiguity of PlayCambridge: Harvard University Press, p.229



Jussi Holopainen

Research Engineer, NokiaResearch Center,

Jussi is doing research on how new technologieseffect the game play and entertainment.

Stephan Meyers

Senior Research Artist, NokiaResearch Center,

Stephan is involved in wireless media and entertainment.He holds an MFA inElectronicVisualizationfrom the University of Illinois at Chicago,and his collaborations with(art)n Laboratorymay be seen in museums and private collections around the world.


Special thanks to Hannu Nieminen andJanineFron

Released after press time and highly recommendedby the authors:ReinventingComics

Not referenced, but don't miss:ArtificialReality IIby Myron Kreuger, 1991

additional links:JesperJuulGonzaloFrasca


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