Games and the Malleability of Our Perceptions

I was just listening to Robert Greene’s book, Mastery, in which he discusses Vilayanur Ramachandran’s revolutionary work on treating phantom limb syndrome and related disorders. He basically uses mirrors to create optical illusion that allow people with phantom limb syndrome to “see” themselves with a healthy limb. In a research study in 2007, he used this technique on 22 people with phantom limb syndrome and within weeks they all experienced relief from their discomfort. Ramachandran’s research sheds light on how remarkably flexible our notions of self are, even at the sensory level. His findings reinforce the findings and convictions of  game designers like Jane McGonigal (see her TED Talk below). Her game, SuperBetter, helps people overcome physical, mental, and emotional challenges.

If showing people they have a healthy limb, even when they don’t, relieves their pain, then what if you used a first person or role playing game to show people they were say… good at math, a successful inventor, or a brilliant scientist? Would experiencing this feeling make it easier for them to overcome the hurdles faced in pursuit of such endeavors?

We all have mirror neurons that respond similarly whether we are performing an action or watching someone else perform an action. Visual storytelling mediums such as games, film, and television are full of characters who excel in intellectually challenging fields, so don’t we already have mainstream examples this kind of aspirational optical illusion? Well, some of us do, but throughout the history of these mediums the overwhelming majority of main characters have been white males, and this has changed remarkably little in the last 60 years [see research by Dr. Stacy Smith for the Geena Davis Institute on Gender in Media]. While I couldn’t find any research exploring the relationship between neuron firing and the degree to which someone related to the performer of actions, there are many studies on the role of repetition in the process of acquiring skills via the process of myelinogenesis, like this interesting paper on the subject that was published by the International Research Association for Talent Development and Excellence  in 2010.

Myelin is an insulating material in our brains that forms a thin layer around the axon of a neuron when it is fired. The axon is the long skinny part of a neuron that conducts electrical impulses (i.e. transmits information) to other neurons, muscles, and glands. It allows these electrical signals to travel faster and with less signal loss. The more times the neuron fires, the more layers of myelin form and the more efficient the connection becomes. Think about the difference between the string connecting two sides of a tin can telephone and the XLR cable connecting a microphone to a speaker, or as  Daniel Coyle describes it in his book, The Talent Code, the difference between a car travelling down a dirt road and a paved road. Bringing it back to media, watching characters perform an action sends a message, but repeatedly watching them do so literally paves a way.

The lack of female characters on television and in films is surprising. The lack of females portrayed in STEM careers is downright ridiculous. Check out this study on movies and television programs from 2006 – 2011. Some notable excerpts:Gender Rolesseejane4


Games are the fastest growing form of entertainment media. As Rebekah Robson-May wrote in her 2011 thesis, Hidden Options and Player Pushback: Rhetoric of Mass Effect 2,

“People who play games have access to skill-sets that are not as available to those who do not play games. These include the ability to think about large-scale problems and to strategically act to solve them… games offer players the opportunity to take on different identities, some that may not be available to them in “real life”…

Robson-May’s words apply most aptly to serious games like Mass Effect 2 because they feature more characters and are designed for longer periods of play than casual games. For those who aren’t familiar with this distinction,

Casual games are easy to play and require few instructions. This contrasts with the substantial time and commitment required to play and learn from a serious game. Serious games typically include complex user interface and interaction options; as a result game-play is far more sophisticated leading to a steeper learning curve [Casual and Serious Games for Learning].

While the majority of casual gamers are female, most serious games have less than 20% female players. One significant reason more women don’t play serious games is that most serious games offer visual stimulation as the dominant source of stimulation. Sheri Graner Ray’s book, Gender Inclusive Game Design, cites research showing that males tend to have a physiological response to purely visual stimuli (increased pulse rate, respiration, and perspiration, adrenal secretion) while most females do not exhibit a physiological response  from visual stimuli unless it is combined with emotional or tactile stimuli. My opinion is that to some extent this may be culturally influenced, but anywhoo. Games offer the possibility for emotional stimuli by means of characters and their stories. Within serious games, the majority of characters are male, and even strong female characters are usually designed as visual stimuli for male players. As Ray puts it,

The gender issue does not make sense to a lot of male developers who often say they have no problem playing a female character. They cannot understand a female player’s discomfort with playing a male character. This discomfort stems not from hypersensitivity, but is actually a result of a sociological concept, called the “pyramid of power”.

As described by anthropologist Dr. Kay Sutherland in Sociology of Women, the pyramid of power si a cross-cultural phenomenon where people are comfortable in their own social/political/economic strata and those below them, but feel uncomfortable when thrust into a higher strata because they are not familiar with the norms associated with positions above their own. Whether or not you believe this theory, it isn’t hard to imagine that female players will experience more emotional stimulation when they can identify with a character. From personal experience, I suspect that women also have a greater sensitivity to the “uncanny valley” phenomenon in which beyond a certain level of realism, human replicas cause discomfort or even revulsion from human observers. The aesthetic trend in most serious games has been towards increased realism, and I often feel strangely bothered by it. This would make sense given the findings of studies such as this one, Higher face recognition ability in girls: to recognize the faces of other females than male children did. I’m curious if other female gamers feel the same way.

From a neurological perspective, the issue isn’t that there aren’t enough strong and intelligent characters in games for women to mirror. The problem is that if women aren’t drawn to play games in the first place because they don’t get as much stimulation from their core mechanics and aren’t offered characters through which they can comfortably engage in fantasy play, then they wont experience the myelinogenesis that happens when neurons are repeatedly fired over a period of time.

Serious games with female characters and the possibility of emotionally driven progress would be one solution. Another would games that offered similar play and character options, but could be experienced in shorter increments of time and with a quicker operational learning curve than most serious games offer. There are indie games that present this type of experience, especially within the genre of interactive fiction. What I haven’t seen in a long time is a game of that type that has the polish and breadth (read investment and marketing) that could give it mainstream exposure. Seriously. I’ve been looking. I really want to give someone my money for this kind of game. If you know of such a game or are making such a game, let me know. I want to help.

References and relevant links:

Powerpoint slides from the game idea I worked on with Jeff Barber and Kathy R at the Transmedia_SF Startup Weekend:







2 responses to “Games and the Malleability of Our Perceptions

  1. Wow, what a clear presentation of why females are less likely to be “taken in” by the contemporary gaming market. It’s interesting to think that that the only popularized games played by the average woman (ie…me) are word/logic games, like Sodoku or Words with Friends — even though the research essentially suggests that female players may be even more likely to appreciate a well-constructed narrative than males. It’s clear enough that women are driven by narrative and the ability to identify and empathize with characters (which explains why I, unfortunately, couldn’t care less about most action movies, and look on in wonder as my male friends can’t take their eyes off the screen)…what I’m curious about, just as an ignoramus, is what that game would look like (!)

  2. Pingback: Links for February 8, 2013 | Andrzej's Links·

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