Shoot first, ask questions later
Steven Poole on the pleasure of getting stuck into game problems
The mind is a machine for reducing uncertainty. At least, so goes one intriguing theory in modern cognitive psychology. Human perception is not a passive business of receiving sense data from the eyes, ears and so forth. Instead, there is a storm of noisy, ambiguous, uncertain signals, from which the brain’s unconscious processing must work very hard to infer even the existence of a table in front of me.
The human brain, on this theory, is constantly performing an unconscious form of logical reasoning called “abduction”. Abduction reasons backwards, from ambiguous evidence to a hypothesised cause. I unconsciously reason that the noisy data of my visual field is the kind of pattern that would be caused if a table were in front of me. Therefore I decide that I am perceiving a table. Abduction is a kind of speculative reverse engineering. It is the kind of reasoning we consciously use when, as Lara Croft, we hypothesise that this mechanism must be driven by that cog, which in turn must be activated by that switch over there.
The trouble is that abduction is highly unreliable. The cause I hypothesise for my sensorium might just be wrong. (That cog might be a red herring.) And this, on the theory, is what goes wrong when people have hallucinations, seeing or hearing things that aren’t there. It’s not that something has gone wrong with their ordinary perception; the system is working as it normally does, only more so – trying too hard to make sense of the data, and making mistakes in its abduction. But these mistakes at least reduce uncertainty about what is out there. Even psychotic delusions, such as that the TV is talking to you personally, can be thought of in the same way. Uncertainty in everyday life can be terribly stressful. A delusion resolves uncertainty and can thus be of tremendous comfort to the person who holds it – in just the same way as a religious faith can.
Perhaps, then, videogames are a virtual allegory of our minds’ stumbling progress through the world. The gameworld is reality; the player is mind. The videogame recreates and exercises the cognitive systems of abduction-from-data in a more pleasurably manageable way. It replaces the real world with a simulated world in which the rhythms of uncertainty and satisfaction are more responsive to the player’s agency. And when uncertainty is resolved, the player can know she is objectively correct, as she rarely can in the real world, because of the ping of a trophy, the discovery of a desired object, the opening of a new vista. Hallucinations and delusions are impossible – or, rather, the videogame is a sort of benign, allencompassing delusion itself.
If a videogame is about creating uncertainty and giving the player the tools to resolve it, then it would follow that it fails when there is either too little uncertainty or too much, or when the uncertainty is in the wrong place altogether. This is one way of thinking, for example, about the modern fashion for excessive handholding and obtrusive hinting in videogames, lest the player get stuck. Being stuck – in a state of uncertainty that one is attempting to resolve – is a necessary part of the game’s pleasure, as long as the player trusts the system to furnish a way out. If you are never stuck, you can never have an “Aha!” moment, which is one of the great joys of the medium.
Misplaced uncertainty, meanwhile, has marred my recent co-op playthroughs of
LittleBigPlanet 3 and Lara Croft: The Temple Of Osiris. My gaming partner and I are not the stupidest guys on the planet, but we must have spent nearly as many hours in those games wondering where the hell to go next as we did actually playing the levels. Both LBP3 and Lara have big hub levels where you are forced into mystifying and confusing exploration just to discover the next playable area. That’s the kind of uncertainty that ejects the player from the comforting delusion of living in a rational universe.
Still, we had fun, as we always do. Indeed, the model I am here proposing – of videogames as allegories of mind versus reality – offers a way to think about the joy of cooperative play as well. In this picture, playing co-op implies a second personality inside one’s head, but this delusion (as it is not in schizophrenia or psychosis) is benign and productive. Playing cooperatively socialises the process of logical abduction, and doubles the satisfaction of resolving uncertainty. In art as in love, two people become one mind against the system.
If you are never stuck, you can never have an “Aha!” moment, which is one of the great joys of the medium