Patterns, Game Design and Social Games

By August 18, 2010Ideas

In my last post, I discussed the significance of combining in-game rewards with certain game mechanics–like achievement loops–and how this game design combination might have the ability to increase the motivation of players to do more things during gameplay. Based on our experiences with some of our previous games, especially Healthseeker, we think another way to create an even more engaging gameplay experience is to make this rewards-and-compulsion loop combination appear (and disappear) in patterns.

Courtesy of Flickr's webtreats

Webtreats Free Tileable Tropical Abstract Patterns Part 1-5

Despite their predictability, patterns as a game mechanic can be an exciting way to spice up gameplay. I know I’ve mentioned the importance of understanding how the brain processes patterns (hot hands phenomenon) in previous posts, and then using this knowledge to design better games, but this idea goes a step further. We know that our brains look for patterns in random events. That’s why we offer advice to fellow players about what “strategy” to use, for example, when picking lotto numbers. One of the really interesting things we can do as game designers is establish and then subvert patterns in our games to grab our player’s attention and keep them focused. Keeping players engaged in the game is an important part of the gamification process, especially when the purpose of your game is to help people achieve long term-goals such as medication adherence or addiction recovery.
I recently came across a talk by Jonah Lehrer, (Rhodes Scholar, Contributing Editor at Wired and author of How We Decide and Why Proust was a Neuroscientist) and he makes the following compelling argument. (I’d highly recommend watching Lehrer’s presentation.) Lehrer shows how we can learn from observing patterns in music and art, –even Escoffier’s cooking–and through this learn how to create meaningful and engaging experiences.
Lehrer explains, for example, how we can employ this theory by looking at music. In a nutshell, (and I am leaving out a bit of backgrounder info. for the sake of brevity) contrary to belief, music wasn’t about the pattern of finding the right sound waves and then playing them in sequence. (It was believed that music was just a bunch of pretty sound waves.) He uses, amongst other examples, Beethoven’s Symphony in E Minor to show us something interesting. That in fact, Beethoven introduces a pattern, a tonic chord and that our brains recognize and come to like this pattern a lot. Only then what Beethoven does is actually avoids the pattern for nearly 20 minutes. He almost brings the pattern back, but not really. He teases a bit. He makes our brains think about the pattern over and over again because he doesn’t establish it again… until the very end of the piece. When he finally re-establishes the initial pattern again at the end of the piece, that is when our brains relax (we now really come to love the music) and we have what Lehrer calls,  a “Hollywood happy ending”:

“He’s literally making your brain search for this pattern he gave you in the beginning, and that’s what makes the music so interesting…and at the end, the Hollywood happy ending comes when the tonic (pattern) is replayed and the pattern returns. In a sense, music is this cat-and-mouse game.”

In nature, we learn to repeat behaviours that lead to maximizing rewards. The implications for game designers who can use patterns in this manner are HUGE: why not learn how to establish a pattern, subvert it–in order to introduce a rewards prediction error (a hypothesis that dopamine encodes the difference between the experienced and predicted “reward” of an event)–and then introduce patterns again to give that ultimate reward. Neural currency. The applications in health related outcomes are vast, especially in disease management or patient adherence because these outcomes can only be improved if the patients are genuinely engaged and motivated.
P.S. On a related topic, I’d also suggest this interesting read. As always you can always send me an email michael [at] ayogo [dot] com or leave a comment.