Opinion: Your play brain and you

Opinion: Your play brain and you

Opinion: Your play brain and you

You love them, you play them, but after a while you just sort of… drift away. You look at their boxes guiltily and promise yourself you’ll finish them soon. Then you buy another and it becomes your new favourite. I’m talking about your games, of course, and the likelihood that you never finish most of them. 

For your DVDs, books and albums, it’s different. When you get around to watching, reading or listening to them, you’ll probably ?finish them. So why not your games?

Well, the answer is obvious: you get bored, even if you don’t want to admit it. Some part of you ceases to want to get through those last few levels. It feels as though the experience is already done, and you don’t really care how it ends.

I call that part of you the ‘play brain’.

When you first see an E3 trailer for the ?latest spectacular it sparks your imagination and makes you wonder just how awesome that game could be. You sense the joy and emotion of the gameworld and imagine yourself being there ?and doing awesome things. When you play the game, that sensation keeps going. It’s like the game is talking to you, leading you through somewhere and letting you do something special. 

That side of you is your ‘art brain’, the part of you that seeks thaumatic experience and where the passion of fandom comes from. However, ?your play brain sees through the disguise to the machine underneath. It’s fascinated by the system of the game rather than its skin, and it reduces all that it sees to problems and solutions. The play brain is literal rather than metaphorical. It sees any game as a series of controls, objects and levers. Everything is a thing to either be interacted with, destroyed, built or taken. Every scenario is a goal, every impediment a challenge to be overcome.

When the pressure is on and the game is in full flow, the play brain dominates your attention. ?It filters out unnecessary information, and focuses purely on the task at hand. Like a soldier on the battlefield, the play brain is able to boil any situation down into survival, mission and required actions, and then take those actions. It gets you in the zone, where fear and meaning vanish. It also perceives according to type rather than instance. The play brain prefers to know that all green orcs behave the same, or that all barrels explode in ?the same way, because that knowledge helps it ?to form strategy. Unlike drama, where a gun on a table can have significance and symbolic value, in a game the play brain regards a gun on a table as either useful or useless. Nothing else.

All games are entertainment for the play ?brain first and foremost. Reality is often complicated, unfair and confusing, but games ?let us go to a world where the rules are fair. ?They take us to a place where our actions can have significant consequences and where we ?are empowered. Games take us to places ?where we can win, unambiguously, and feel good about that. The play brain wants that high. 

It wants to keep achieving new goals and mastering its fascination anew. If it scores a high score then it wants to beat that. If it gains a level in a sim game then it wants the next one. The play brain loves to achieve, understand and overcome. And this is why you don’t finish those games: at some point, you just stop winning. 

This is the point at which the game has either become so easy that it is no longer a challenge, or so difficult that there is no progress. The play brain reaches the maximum mastery that it will ever achieve, and at that point the game stops being fun. Instead it becomes work. 

So you may have reached a point in an RPG where you’ve hit on a perfect combination of powers. The game becomes easy, and suddenly the levels seem like a slog. There’s no joy in winning against the opponent that you already know you can beat, so the play brain is not interested. Alternatively, you reach a point in a game where a certain challenge is just too hard. You can’t figure it out, don’t have the skill or the patience to overcome, and you become frustrated. 

Some players are more tolerant of these moments than others. Some find winning so addictive that they will grind their way through the whole of the rest of a game just to get that one last win. Some consider cheats, FAQs and guides to be perfectly valid tools to overcome the too-hard parts and get back to the fun. Others will just give up at the first sign of boredom or frustration. 

The fascination of the play brain is a universal constant across all genres. FarmVille players are just as fascinated as Gears Of War players. Minecraft players and Angry Birds players are similarly deeply locked into a system that they ?find almost endlessly interesting.

It’s about whether the actions in the game are interesting, and whether they lead to strategic thought. Do the actions extend in some way? Does it lead to useful emergent effects? Is there ?a repeatable dynamic that you can build on? Games are only fun for as long as the play ?brain finds the system fascinating to play with. 

Your games are unfinished because you got what you needed out of them. Time to play something new.