Short feedback loops

So I have this half-written blog entry lying around, and somewhere in it I write:

One useful way of looking at a game is to separate the presentational (what things look like) from the functional (how things work).

The brain has a way of absorbing the functional, of creating a model of it. Think of how you become one with a car when you drive it, how you can sense small vibrations and derive information from it, how you ‘just know’ how to do something, how you talk about your car as ‘I’. Your nervous system is extended – literally, depending on how cyborg-ish you want to look at this. You have a model of yourself-driving-a-car, just like you have a model of yourself-walking, yourself-using-a-text-editor. The same goes with games, on various levels. You absorb the game’s controls, it’s rules, it’s structure.

This is related to yesterday’s entry on distortion. (The entry was called ‘distortion’ because in some language – French? German? – there’s an expression ‘professional distortion’: what happens when you see everything through the lens of your work.)

(This is also related to Scott McCloud’s explanation of why smiley faces work – our model of our own face is very simple, much simpler than a picture of a face. But I digress.)

I like the connection Robin made with rewards – at least, that’s how I understood her reference to opportunism. It means that apart from user interface theory and psychology in general, one can tie this to Skinner’s behaviorism as well, if one were so inclined. Perhaps Noah could think of some interesting connections as well.

But the why and the how of this phenomenon are distinct. The ‘why’ is, for instance, the fact that a given action or event is pleasurable or positive, like collecting stuff in Katamari Damacy. The ‘how’ is the extension of the nervous system through the use of an interface with very short feedback loops. In other words, something that resembles our organic bodies.

I think the short feedback loop is key. I don’t think this would work well in a turn-based game. (On some level it would, but that’s the level of the user interface, button clicks for commands etc., which would probably still use short feedback loops, unless you’re doing play by mail.)

Comments 6

  1. Aubrey wrote:

    I’m with you on this one. For my part, the reasoning is pretty simple – the faster you see the result of your actions, the easier it is to associate those results with your actions.

    I find Sim City 3000 pretty hard because of this – it’s hard to tell whether you’ve made the right choices until a few (game) decades down the line. Even though there are quick reactions to your actions in the game (placing a power plant which powers up everything around it), there tend to be long term detractions associated with it: since so much time passes, and so many important things happen between the instant you placed that plant, and the negative effect it brings, it’s somewhat difficult to conceptually link the power plant with its own negative effects. (Maybe that’s not the best example, but basically, the source of the result is hidden by the white noise of interactivity between the stimulus and response).

    Posted 13 Jan 2005 at 11:34
  2. Walter wrote:

    Apparently, I’m not even *in* the feedback loop.

    Posted 14 Jan 2005 at 23:18
  3. mike d wrote:


    Well, I tend to think that the best strategy games are the ones where history matters. But I also think that those types of games must be tightly focused in order to really work. because I agree that a delayed/vague cause-effect response can be very frustrating… which causes me no end in confusion as to why it seems that game designers are so eager to add high level emergence into their games. are players really that interested in sorting through the rubble of complex systems?

    on preview: grammar failed me.. but too tired to fix…

    Posted 15 Jan 2005 at 3:13
  4. Aubrey wrote:

    Note that I said I found Sim City “hard”, but not “bad”.

    I mean, the arguement works both ways. Having a game made purely from instant feedback could be an equally bad idea – your interactions are like water off a duck’s back. Where’s the persistance? Where’s the involvement?

    There’s no right or wrong in this subject – merely observations.

    Posted 17 Jan 2005 at 11:59
  5. Jurie Horneman wrote:

    You’ve saved me the trouble of pointing this out myself. These are all just elements to be arranged carefully in a package that will hopefully please a few people.

    Posted 17 Jan 2005 at 13:50
  6. Aubrey wrote:

    Wow. Me pre-empting your opinions has happen more than once. You know what that means, don’t you?

    Aubrey is the voice of Jurie! You hear that everyone?

    (Aubrey says that Jurie doesn’t like your mummy very much).


    Posted 18 Jan 2005 at 12:10