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This Is Your Brain on Strategy Games

October 18th, 2010 by Troy Goodfellow · 5 Comments · Me

It’s not that I only play strategy games – I love a good RPG or puzzle game. I used to play a lot of adventure games, too. But strategy and war games are my bread and butter, my alpha and omega, the reason I blog and podcast and get paid to begin with.

There is a price to going for depth in a genre instead of general breadth. While most of my colleagues have sunk time into Dead Rising 2 or Halo Reach, I’m still working through the improvements to Victoria 2 and finding the perfect way to use the Akkadians in Bronze.

It’s not just that I am outside many conversations; most gamers I think don’t play every major game as soon as it comes out and only take part in a few conversations anyway. It’s that strategy games condition your mind in certain ways that makes an abrupt change to another genre quite difficult.

It also leads you to believe that if you can master the Cultural Victory in Civilization 5, then playing Rhythm Heaven on your DS should be a piece of cake.

My good friend and colleague Jenn Cutter is a bad influence on me in many ways. Her gaming covers a wider and more Japanese map than mine, plus racing games and things that I have never heard of. Our discussions often refer to rhythm and music games, which she knows very well, and she, in effect, challenged me to play Rhythm Heaven.

I suck at it, and I think I know why.

The obvious explanation is that I, in fact, have no rhythm. Given my general aversion to freeform dancing, this is apparent to any casual observer. But I think there is something more to it than this.

Deep immersion in strategy games and even action RPGs conditions you to expecting certain things from a game. You expect to have the signals and cues appear on screen in a certain way and to have your responses to these cues translated in a certain way. Aural cues are rare and give you some time to respond.

Rhythm Heaven is really all aural. You need to respond purely to a sound and then you have to take that sound and answer it with a physical action. On the DS version, this means flicking the stylus sharply and strongly.

A rhythm game like Rhythm Heaven would work better if I could confidently close my eyes and know that my stylus flicking thing would work. (When I explained to Cutter that I had never flicked my stylus before in a game, she accused me of never using my DS; in fact Dawn of Discovery and Civilization Revolution just never use stylus flicking.)

I’ve written before about the grammar of games, but we have to recognize that many games and genres have completely different languages. I don’t mean in terms of jargon or acronyms – though those matter. I am hardly monolingual in gaming matters, but I am so immersed in one language that the shift to a game where my ears are more important than my eyes and my reflexes more important than my brain is a humbling experience.

But like a language, the only way to fix it is to get more deeply immersed in it. So I haven’t quite given up on Rhythm Heaven, though progress will be slow. I’ve got a couple of ideas in mind about how to regularly get more exposure to new non-strategy games without breaking my budget.

In some ways, I expect this is like someone who only plays Madden trying to get into Out of the Park Baseball or someone who only plays Call of Duty pausing for a ripping game of Imperialism. It’s not just a matter of unfamiliarity – it’s a different brain space, a different way of understanding how your expectations of how a game should work defeat you.


5 Comments so far ↓

  • Punning Pundit

    To sort of follow up on that: what would it mean if Civ:Rev or Dawn of Discovery _had_ used the flicking motion? As we move toward a conception of (some) games with meaning, and (some) games as art, what would we like aural cues to mean? In much the same way that we movie watchers know what a voice over sounds like, and what it means; what would we gamers like a 10 second cool down on a timer to mean? Readers are familiar enough with footnotes that we can deconstruct them to use in other contexts. I’d love to see mouse over text used in similar ways. First, though, we have to be able to expect every PC (strategy) game to actually use them…

    And, as a follow up, I’m going to recommend a viewing of Scott Pilgrim, which does an admirable job of translating gaming’s language to motion pictures…

  • steve

    I’d expect a strategy gamer to do well at Out of the Park Baseball, then I look at your team in the standings…

  • frags

    I guess it’s difficult for people like me to understand just how much of a mental shift it requires for those that play predominantly a particular genre. Having grown up playing many different type of games. Tycoon games, the Dooms, the Civs, the great RTS’s it doesn’t seem like a big obstacle for me. I do consider myself a strategy gamer.

    But I agree, the verbs, metaphors, interface are different from genre to genre.

    PS : Can’t wait to sink in time to Planescape Torment :)

  • Troy

    Steve, it’s just a matter of time before CP returns to its former glory. One bad contract has sunk me. But we will be back.

  • Peter (Mind Elemental)

    I’d be interested in hearing more on this topic. It sounds as though you’re thinking of something similar to the fabled hand-eye coordination instilled by FPSes and fighting games, except in reverse: i.e. bad habits built up from strategy gaming actively work against you in other genres. Is that an accurate understanding of what you said?