I have some good news and some bad news. Every year, I submit multiple sessions to GDC, ranging from lectures, to round tables to panel discussions. Every year, the lectures are rejected, although usually late enough in the process to get the polite "you almost made it" letter. The bad news is that my lecture for GDC 2009, "This is Your Brain On Games", which I rate as the best submission I've made thus far, was rejected in the initial round of winnowing this year. The good news is that I no longer have to wait until after March to publish this material to my blog - so my players here should enjoy some pretty stellar posts on neurobiology of play in the weeks to come.
I expect when I post the most tabloid-style post on this subject later this year, it will pull in between 24,000 and 30,000 visitors (based on previous traffic watermarks), so I shouldn't really care about not getting to lecture about it to an audience of a hundred at GDC. But still, I have to wonder: if the material I'm producing is of great interest to the videogames community at large, why isn't it of interest to the GDC organisers? What really confuses me about this is how it was possible to reject this proposal so rapidly. I'm considered to be one of the more interesting lecturers in the videogames space, and universities and conventions love to invite me to talk. GDC, however, has never accepted one of my lectures (although I've been on the GDC faculty many times thanks to my friends in the IGDA and industry inviting me to host or participate in other kinds of session).
So I'm forced to wonder: was this proposal rejected so rapidly because of a flaw with the proposed lecture (perhaps it seemed too complex, or too academic) or because the GDC organisers don't recognise me as a valuable member of the games community? I accept that my research is not as thorough as Nick Yee's, my player models are not as accessible or popular as Nicole Lazzaro's, and my videogames are not as beloved as Shigeru Miyamoto's, but even so, I'm a long way from being a complete unknown. As is so often the case, it's the uncertainty that troubles me: the early rejection form-letter email gives no clue as to why a proposal has been thrown out - so I'm turning to you, my players, to give me some feedback and speculate as to why this might not have seemed as solid a lecture as it appeared to me.
This is Your Brain On Games
Are games addictive? We all know that there is a sense in which videogames are fiendishly addictive, but this does not mean the same as ‘addiction’ in a medical context. This session looks at the biology of play in order to explore the question “are games addictive?” while simultaneously showing the effects videogames have on people’s brains, and how we can leverage these mechanisms to make better games.
A fairer way to describe the addictive properties of games is perhaps ‘habit forming’ – the reason you keep coming back to a game you enjoy is because playing that game forms a habit for you. Things that form habits in this way needn’t be viewed negatively – in fact, good mental health depends upon forming good habits concerning eating and sleeping (for instance). Furthermore, our lives are full of things that are ‘habit forming’ in this weak sense – television shows of all kinds hope to form habits so that they will build an audience, but there is little outcry about this kind of ‘addiction’.
There is a chemical in the brain known as dopamine which lies behind all habit forming behaviours, and examining how this neurotransmitter functions provides a helpful way of understanding what makes games addictive. Other neurotransmitters have other effects on the brain, and understanding how these work (and how they work in concert with dopamine) provides a valuable picture of the biology of play – something that game developers can use to make better games for their audience.
This session provides an easy-to-follow introduction to the biology of play, featuring examples drawn from real gameplay experiences and showing how they relate to the underlying mechanisms in the human brain. Although some technical terms (like dopamine) are used, the language of the presentations has been simplified slightly to make the central ideas accessible to anyone. Packed full of interesting perspectives on play, the talk draws upon the latest neurobiological research to explain why games are addictive.
For everyone interested in how the brain reacts to videogames, this is the presentation for you – this is your brain on games!
Attendees to this presentation will take away a whole new perspective on how and why people play videogames, how games can be put together to leverage the various mechanisms in the human brain, as well as a crash course in the neurobiology of play. They will learn about how dopamine reinforces behaviours (and causes both habits and addiction), how the fight-or-flight mechanism lies behind the enjoyment of many (but not all) videogames, why curiosity can be as rewarding as victory, and why successful games leverage not just novelty, but also familiarity.
Please let me know why you think this session was rejected by GDC in the comments. Thanks in advance for your input!