Video game players often describe what is, in effect, an altered state of consciousness that they attain when playing well. I’ve seen a number of terms to describe the experience, but the most common usage involves the word ‘flow’. The player loses awareness of the outside world and transcends to a level of consciousness that comprises a kind of mental unification with the game. They are ‘in the flow’ of the game; they have ‘caught the flow’ of the game. In this altered state of consciousness, the player moves in unison with the game’s action, anticipating events and responding to them with inhuman speed. 

I have written about this state before, in the context of games being akin to alcohol and some recreational drugs; the users goes to another state of consciousness that permits him to forget his problems and feel good. But in this essay I propose to examine the ‘light side’ of this phenomenon.

Let us set aside the extreme case of the player being ‘in the flow’. Instead, let’s consider what happens in the far more common case that the player is responding well to the game, but is not in perfect synch with the game. Why is this experience so appealing to players?

I suggest that the answer lies in the exercise of intuition, which is in my terminology the exercise of pattern-based cognition, as opposed to reason-based cognition. (You may wish to get a clearer grasp of my meaning here by reading this page, this second page, and a few in between.)

We are all taught the use of rigorous rational thinking, and some of us are particularly good at it, but most of us find such thinking tedious and alien. Suppose, for example, that you can figure out whodunnit only halfway into a murder mystery. You’d feel pretty pleased with yourself, wouldn’t you? That’s a demonstration of powerful intuitive talents. Now suppose that you can multiply any two-digit numbers in just five seconds. 27 times 56 is 1512. (I had to use my calculator). Would you feel equal pride in such an achievement? How about writing a program to calculate the value of π to 5,000 decimal places? Not something you’d boast about to the rest of the family at Thanksgiving, is it? 

The fact is, although we can all do rigorous logical thinking to some degree, only down-to-the-bone geeks take any pride in that kind of talent. We invest more of our sense of self-worth in the adept exercise of our pattern-based thinking, which many people call ‘intuition’. 

That’s why it feels so good to master a video game, in which case the intuition being exercised is pretty simple: hand-eye coordination along with some spatial reasoning. When you reach the point that you’re no longer thinking about what you’re doing, but instead just doing it, that’s when your intuition has completely kicked in, and it feels very good indeed. 

Let’s apply this concept to each of the standard challenges used in video games:

Spatial reasoning
This is the talent for knowing where you are located in a complex 3-dimensional space and knowing your spatial relationship to other things and people. Males tend to specialize in spatial reasoning, which is why so many males play videogames. The use of this talent at the intuitive level manifests itself as ‘just knowing’ where to go as you navigate a complex space. You don’t have to figure it out consciously – you just know it – and lots of players seem to have a talent for that, a talent they revel in.

Puzzle solution
Videogames are full of puzzles that must be solved, and usually the player must apply some explicit reasoning skills to analyze a puzzle. But the emotional kick of solving a puzzle comes from the successful creativity required to imagine a possible solution. Most puzzles are solved by 'thinking outside the box’, a process that is wholly intuitive in nature.

Resource management
Another big challenge in videogames, this talent requires you to judiciously allot limited resources such as ammo, guns, and healing packs. Consider carefully exactly how that process works in the mind. Faced with a situation demanding the expenditure of resources, the player must decide whether to use the faster, shorter, or safer solution expending lots of resources, or take a longer, slower, or riskier approach that conserves resources. The problem is, the player doesn’t know what lies ahead; therefore, each expenditure of resources represents a guess as to future needs. That guess is an exercise of intuition. A dozen factors must be weighed against each other to draw a logical conclusion, but the player doesn’t have time for that kind of analysis – and besides, it wouldn’t be fun. So the player relies on his intuition – and there always comes a moment (usually many such moments) when the player takes pride in his decision because it turned out to embody the perfect balance of considerations. 

Reverse Engineering
Here we come to an unrecognized bane of game design: the technique by which players reverse engineer a game. By playing it over and over, they characterize the algorithms at work and then play so as to make best use of those algorithms. This is considered the right and proper way to play a game; indeed, players now expect to be able to reverse engineer the games they play. I have received frequent complaints that my games do not permit reverse engineering; the causal relationships are too complicated to be analyzed. (See this essay on Causal Immediacy).

I argue that this expectation is wildly wrong-headed. The point of a game should be to engage your intuitions, not your analytic skills. The algorithms should be sophisticated enough that you shouldn’t be able to simply calculate your way to success. 

Our problem here is due to a historical happenstance: many game designers aren’t that good at designing interesting algorithms. The current oeuvre of games has lots of expensive graphics, music, and animation assets, but deep down inside, they're stupid. A snide term applies to today’s games: dumb blonde. They’re so beautiful that they rely on their looks rather than intelligence to get ahead. Players have grown so inured to stupid games that they now expect stupidity in the form of easily analyzed algorithms. 

Intuitive players
Someday we’ll attract an audience of ungeeky players who have no interest in analyzing the games; such healthy, normal people will want to exercise their intuition rather than their analytic skills. Consider, for example, the people who play cards for fun (not professional poker players or gamblers). They do not calculate probabilities explicitly. They don’t ignore probabilities; they just don’t calculate them. Instead, they rely on their intuitive guesses as to the likelihood that they’ll get the cards they need to win. 

Let’s imagine a ‘normal’ person playing poker, and let’s set aside the element of guessing how well another player is doing by examining their body language. Instead, let’s consider only what goes on in the mind of a player assessing his chances of winning or losing. He could, of course, go through a detailed calculation of the odds of all the various possibilities that could ensue depending on how many cards he surrenders. But such a calculation would be onerous to perform; instead, he relies on an intuitive assessment that mashes together all those probabilities into a gut hunch. For this player, playing poker is an exercise in intuition, not an analytic problem. For this person, poker is fun. 

By way of counterexample, let’s imagine a card game that is readily subject to analysis with little cognitive effort. Let’s call it ‘dumb poker’, and in this game, each player is dealt five cards, as always, but the value of a hand is determined solely by sum of the values of each of the cards in a hand, with aces counting as one. Thus, most hands will have an average value of 30; the lowest possible hand is 6 and the highest possible hand is 64. Each player is dealt his hand, they place their bets, and show their cards. The optimal strategy is obvious: if your hand is higher than 30, you should push the bet upward as far as you think safe; if your hand is lower than 30, you should be ready to fold easily.

Such a game has little intuitive appeal; it is much too easy to analyze rigorously. Nobody plays such a game because it doesn’t tickle your intuition.

We can extend the idea to any popular game simplified to the point of analytical determinism. Chess with just a king and a few pawns wouldn’t be much of a game, would it? How about checkers with just four pieces? All successful games have a minimum level of complexity required to push the game beyond the pale of analytic solution and into the realm of intuition. Of course, that minimum level depends upon the cognitive maturity of the players; children can be fascinated by tic-tac-toe, but they outgrow it as their brains mature.

Un-(reverse engineering)-able games
Thus, videogames are abnormal in their reliance on reverse engineering; when at some point in the far future, games are a mature medium, they will challenge their players at an intuitive level. It is possible to achieve this ideal using the current set of challenges (hand-eye coordination, puzzle solving, resource management, or spatial reasoning), but only by pushing the cognitive challenges into such degrees of complexity as to completely befuddle the average player. 

Social cognition
There is, however, one field of challenge that intrinsically demands intuitive responses, because it is well beyond the reach of analytic cognition: social reasoning. There is simply no way to calculate your way through social relationships. (Many geeky types attempt to maintain personal relationships through analytic methods; they never get very far.)

But social reasoning is a double-edged sword: the immense complexity that places it beyond the grasp of analytic cognition also puts it beyond the grasp of algorithm design. If you can’t calculate in your head how people will react, how can you design algorithms that empower the computer to compute those reactions in the first place?

This is not the impossible conundrum that it first appears to be; there is an answer. You can create such algorithms – if you’re an artistic genius. And what is so wrong with that? Is it not the case that all great works of art have been the works of geniuses? Do not Beethoven, Homer, and Michaelangelo tower in our estimation as giants? When enough geniuses have set themselves to work on the problem, we shall have a solution. It took thousands of years for music to develop from simple chants and songs to the masterpieces of classical music. Statuary was practiced by the Mesopotamians and the Egyptians, but it wasn’t until the Greeks came along that the medium truly reached artistic greatness. Painting didn’t get there until the Renaissance. Software will take some time, too. We must be patient.