Sunday, April 26, 2009

Story-Based Games as Transformational Media

Story-Based Games as Transformational Media

In John Stewart’s posting, “Flow Engineering using computer games,” he begins to “sketch some ways in which computer game frameworks can be used to promote the positive development of humanity, both as individuals and collectively.” The general subject of transformative media is directly relevant to another conference venue, Social Approaches to Consciousness, and together they become a mandate for meaningful media.

The term media covers a lot of ground, and it is by virtue of an infinite array of mediation that humans learn about their environment, themselves, their cultural values, and the meaning underlying the patterns of their lives. I think that the discovery of relative meaning (personal or collective) is the essence of the “Flow” experience in its many forms. Among the variants, I would include insightful learning, biofeedback, Maslow’s “peak” experience, epiphany, the healing experience of patients under Jungian psychiatric treatment, or mythic transcendence—what Joseph Campbell called atonement (at-one-ment) with the Father that is achieved by the Hero at the end of the Hero’s Journey.

A mythic marker of such experiences is the loss of time sense that can be associated with many “profound” human experiences, and the loss of time sense is a significant aspect of what is experienced as “immersion” in a video game (or transcendental meditation). However, in video games, such immersion is enhanced by interactivity—the manipulation of a “joystick” that registers player choices and provides her/him with sequenced, direct, positive feedback. As John points out, the degree of motivation and skill-matching associated with any activity greatly enhances the potential for meaningful control and the experience of Flow.

As to the question of whether a Flow path to an important goal can be engineered, I would advocate for the employment of story-based games (SBGs) as narrative architecture that enhances the experience of Flow. Furthermore, if the narrative architecture in SBGs were programmed according to parameters of Jungian amplification theory, it would tend to a “comprehensive capacity to engineer strong motivational paths to longer-term goals that would fundamentally change human potential.” If successful, such architecture would have a multi-leveled mereological impact.

Why story-based games? SBGs have all the elements of Flow: interactivity, immersion, and dramatic structure. Narrative/dramatic structure is a common denominator among all cognitive research models including Global Workspace, cognitive framing, the functions of Jungian psyche, and neurobiological mapping. So, research on the creation of sophisticated psychological Flow paths in SBGs would be instructive from both the perspective of consciousness research and the effective applications of that research to education and meaningful media policy at cultural levels. Such meaningful media research and application would result in a fundamental change in human potential. That potential would incorporate Jungian dimensions of “Heart” (feeling and intuition) as well as sensing (perception) and thinking.

Carl Jung understood that dreams have all the elements of good Greek drama and that this dramatic structure provides a framework for analysis. SBGs engineered according to the principles of this dramatic structure could have the same “healing” potentials as dreams.

This is a subject that can only be touched in a blog, but here are some general examples of how SBGs might be engineered according to Jungian principles:
· Myers-Briggs personality profiles could be incorporated in order to insure that game challenges are reasonably matched to player skills and interests. This would enhance player motivation and predispose to the experience of Flow.
· Narrative principles of the mythic Hero’s Journey could be incorporated in a myriad ways to provide a clear sequence of challenges, nuanced player choices leading to positive feedback, motivational pathways that predispose the player to new insights, complex characterization based on Jungian archetypes (as energy patterns in a unified field), personalized and meaningful goals leading to character development (premise) and player self-realization, and a more practical appreciation of a living media-sphere or unified field (dramatic unities) of psyche-physics.
· Of particular interest is the subject of mirror-neuron circuitry or systems (MNS). Research using fMRI or EEG to map the brain and neural processes of SBG players could contribute substantially to our understanding of Jungian functions (thinking, feeling, sensing, intuiting) as they participate in mostly unconscious player choices. In other words, we might begin to track brain function according to Jungian holistic principles of psyche in order to divulge information about such manifestations of “Heart” as empathy. Such information would contribute to furthering our knowledge about Flow and what constitutes transformational or meaningful media.
· Mirror neuron systems are important factors in Theory of Mind (ToM). Theory of Mind posits the ability to attribute mental states (beliefs, intents, desires, etc.) to oneself and others, and recent research (undertaken by Vittorio Gallese and others) on MNS underlines potentials of MNS that seem to be related to the ability of a person to recognize and anticipate goal-directed movements. If such movements were simulated in the programming of supporting characters (known as artificial intelligence or AI) and avatars in story-based games, characters would be more sophisticated and drama more nuanced. Interactivity would be more intuitively fluid and more meaningful for the player. Perhaps more important, such increased authenticity in game play would provide a steady stream of data captured by way of biofeedback, fMRI, or EEG technology relative to the patterns of mirror system activity in the brain. Such knowledge might lead to a better understanding of Flow.
· The graphics or narrative architecture of SBGs could as well be programmed according to authentic principles of symbolic interpretation as they have been discovered and recorded in case studies where Jungian amplification (metaphorical extension akin to metaphorical framing) has been employed in dream analysis. Knowledge gleaned from such data accumulated with a variety of research designs might be used in subsequent game programs to reinforce “positive” neural patterns that arise relative to the Flow phenomenon.

I eagerly anticipate John’s next installment discussing existing games relative to Flow paths and meaningful goals.

Friday, April 24, 2009

'Flow Engineering' using computer games

This is the first of a series of posts that sketch some ways in which computer game frameworks can be used to promote the positive development of humanity, both as individuals and collectively. The posts are intended to stimulate discussion and sharing about some of the key themes that will be explored in depth at the Meaningful Media Workshop.

This first post examines how computer games can be designed and structured to overcome a major impediment to the positive development of humanity.

Part of being human is having long term goals that we are unable to achieve easily (or sometimes at all). Often our difficulty is that we are not motivated to do all the things that are necessary to reach the goal.

For example, we don’t necessarily find satisfaction in the actions needed to lose weight, to get fit, to learn a musical instrument, to get a better career, or to develop our emotional, social, cognitive or spiritual intelligence. The fact that we find a long term goal extremely alluring does not automatically provide us with the motivation to take all the steps to achieve the goal. Unfortunately, human psychology is not organized that way (yet).

Computer games and related technologies can help overcome this significant impediment to human achievement. To see how, we will begin by looking at what we can learn from cases in which motivation is not a significant problem.

In some circumstances we sail effortlessly towards our goals. For example, we appear to be able to sustain motivation over a long period when there is a sequence of steps that will take us to our goal, and each step happens to be intrinsically rewarding and satisfying.

On some occasions, we find ourselves moving effortlessly along such a ‘motivational path’ in a state know as Flow. In a Flow state we are strongly focused on a sequence of challenges and are fully immersed in responding to them. We move through the challenges enjoyably and without effort, often losing track of time.

A key condition for maintaining a Flow experience is a balance between the level of ability of the participant and the degree of difficulty of the challenges. Each step must not be so easy as to produce boredom, nor so difficult as to evoke anxiety. Some features that appear to be common to most Flow paths are:

· A clear sequence of challenges that require the exercise of skill;

· Direct positive feedback when a challenge is responded to successfully;

· The challenges are reasonably matched to the participant’s (developing) skills, giving the participant a sense of control; and

· Negative thinking is suppressed through the merging of action and awareness, and by a requirement for concentration (more on Flow can be found here).

But there are no Flow paths or other strong motivational paths to many of our important longer term goals. To what extent can this be overcome by intentional ‘Flow engineering’? Can we embed ourselves in circumstances that provide motivational paths to our goals? If there is no ‘naturally occurring’ Flow path to an important goal, can we build one?

A comprehensive capacity to engineer strong motivational paths to our longer-term goals would fundamentally change human potential.

Computer games and related technologies have an enormous potential to engineer motivational paths, including Flow paths. It is this capacity of computer games to provide flow paths that makes them absorbing and addictive. In large part, the success of a video game is proportional to its ability to evoke a Flow experience.

It is easy to see how computer game can be structured to provide motivational paths that meet all the criteria for producing Flow. Sequences of challenges, direct feedback, a requirement for concentration and merging of action and awareness are all easily incorporated into a game framework. And most importantly, the interactivity of computer games enables dynamic matching of the degree of difficulty to the level of the player. Matching can take advantage of interactivity by monitoring and assessing player performance and by allowing player-choice (either explicit or implicit). [More on tuning games to provide Flow (including ‘Dynamic Difficulty Adjustment’) can be found here].

The potential of computer games and related technologies to provide motivational paths is almost unlimited. In principle, they can provide a path to almost any goal. This is because any achievement that moves a player towards a goal can be a challenge that is rewarded within the game. An achievement can be the acquisition of a skill (whether physical, cognitive or spiritual), the development of particular knowledge or insight, a behavioral outcome, or the accomplishment of some specific task or state of affairs. It also can be something that the player achieves in ‘real life’, provided there is a process that translates the achievement into a game input. This input could, for example, be collected by automatic monitoring or sensing processes (including biofeedback), or could be produced by the player (e.g. by inputting reports through an interface).

In this way, a virtual gaming framework can be applied as an overlay to activities in real life. The overlay would treat achievement of particular outcomes as progress within the game. The outcomes that are rewarded would be chosen so that they provide a new motivational path to longer-term, ‘real life’ goals. For a simple example, the real life goal might be the loss of a particular amount of weight, and actions that are rewarded within the game may include activities that reduce food intake and burn calories. Rewards may include the satisfaction of doing better than others in a multi-player framework.

The best way to get a feel for the extraordinary potential of games to provide Flow paths to meaningful goals is to look at some existing games that do this. It is also useful to consider how new games could be designed and tuned to provide motivational paths to other meaningful, ‘real life’ goals. This will be the subject of my next post to this blog.

Thursday, April 23, 2009

Breadth of Conversation on Media and Consciousness

I'm so pleased to see this discussion in association with the consciousness conference in Hong Kong. I think that it is important to early on point out that while there are many problems with media use and it's effects across types of media, but probably most with electronically mediated media, there are also great advantages. I would hate to see us simply be added to long list of voices that condemn media use to varying degrees and was pleased to see the recent post on the potential of flow as a model for motivation in gaming.

Electronic media effects are a complex picture and thus do not easily reduce to good or bad, arousal or calmness, face to face or virtual realities, etc. I face this especially with my research program into the effects of video game play on consciousness. I'll be reporting on the dream aspects specifically but we have looked at a variety of dimensions of consciousness in our lab. I recently had a review of the basic thesis appear in the Journal of Transpersonal Psychology ( My thesis has been that hard core gaming, sans addiction which is about 11% of the gaming population, can be viewed as a sort of meditative technique.

This is, of course, tricky as meditation comes in thousands of forms and our understanding of it in the west is just beginning. But the foundation of this thesis can be seen in the idea that Virtual Reality is the culmination of the ages old search for physical trancendence. This view was beautifully stated by Daniel Czitrom (as cited by Biocca, Kim and Levey in their "The Vision of Virtual Reality") who observed, "The dream of transcendence through machines is an ancient one, and the urge to annihilate space and time found particularly intense expression through new communication media . . . The accelerated evolution of media hardware and software has been fueled by the persistence of utopian urges in the population at large" (pp. 187, 194). This was point out in 1982!

As much as discussions and research in to meditation in the west have accelerated, what is clear is that these practices should not be reduced to stereotypes. The tradition that I have followed the most, at least in reading and participating in their research, (i.e., Transcendental Meditation) points out that it is the experience of transcendence that is the key and not the practice of meditation per se. They do hold however, that this is most quickly attained during meditation but can be achieved in various other ways. So for instance sufi dancing, long distance running, shamanic drumming, some forms of sexual activities, and so forth. My point is that to say we must stop arousal or not be exposed to violence (and here I know I am going out on a limb!!!) is to narrow our scope, understanding and implications of the effects of electronic media.

Thus in our research program we have searched for similar outcomes from gaming as have been reported from meditation. We began with the repeated finding regarding dreams, the higher incidence of lucid and control dreams among high end gamers. Also various video game labs have noted the association of flow to gaming. It should be noted that while flow can be conceptualized as a motivational variable as noted in another blog post herein, it is also viewed as a state of consciousness by Csíkszentmihályi who originally conceptualized it. Other parallels include our prelminary association of mindfulness and gaming as well as field indepdence and gaming. The attention findings are very strong regarding the benefits of gaming. Also the spatial/vestibular implications both from the meditative literature and the gaming literature offer further parallels. The list goes on.

While media effects literature is large and broad, other than discussions of flow, there is very little discussion or research on the relationship of media use to consciousness. This is what we collectively have to offer that is a unique perspective on societies media absorption.

Friday, April 17, 2009

A cognitive approach to diagnosing the media dream

Relative to treating psychological maladies or sociopathic behavior, perhaps reducing aggression with video games is just the beginning.

The human domain is a mediated reality in which human evolution can be measured in terms of its capacity to create tools for mediation. While it is not self-evident that human beings are superior to all other living organisms, it is self-evident that they have a unique capacity to communicate complex information from an “inner” reality and to articulate that data in the “outer” reality. The languages we call media range from a wink to a snarl, from English to Ebonics, from smoke signals to dreams, from hieroglyphics to computer programs. From the human perspective epistemology is a study in the philosophy of mediation. We humans have always shared a media age, but we are just beginning a media age that pushes the limits of technology and bleeds into the realm of psyche. If the nightly news and the “media dream” were diagnosed by Carl Jung, he would say that the collective psyche is in a state of trauma. Notwithstanding the mythic tools of metaphysics and alchemy, we have just recently acquired the tools necessary to address such a scope of psychosis in a scientifically predictable way. The tools include Jungian amplification, global workspace theory, neurobiological framing, and story-based video game technology. The common denominator that synchronizes these disciplines is narrative-metaphorical structure; which, applied to the media-sphere of the contemporary world, can first diagnose and then address the psychic imbalance of collective humanity.

Games to Reduce Agression

Here's an interesting post about using video games to reduce aggression - The game in the article is pretty simple (showing words).  The "priming" phenomenon has also been written up in Dan Ariely's book Predictably Irrational (one of the TED books last year).  These techniques are easily integrated into video games.  Reducing aggression would certainly be meaningful.

Tuesday, April 7, 2009

Meaningful Media

We plan to hold a Meaningful Media workshop during the Asia Consciousness Festival in Hong Kong that will bring together leading researchers from the consciousness community with media (and especially interactive media) experts.  One of the few technologies that tracks the exponential growth of many of our problems today (pollution, population, etc.), digital media technologies have the potential to transform perspective and world-view.  Media acts in the realm of the mind to influence behavior.  The sights we see, the sounds we hear, and the games we experience incite emotions and shape world-view.   For example, you can probably recall moments when films made you laugh, cry, or feel scared.  Today's advertising applies many of the theories of psychology to influence behavior (for those that haven't seen it yet Adam Curtis wonderfully outlines the development of the advertising industry in his series Century of Self which is available online here:  

In the case of Meaningful Media, we pose the question "Can we apply media to liberate rather than subjugate the mind?"  I am personally inspired by a book by the philosopher Jiddu Krishnamurti which is also available online (chapter 1 at  Addressing the issue of personal development / transformation lies at the heart of nearly every major problem that we face in the world today.

Although we come from different cultures and perspectives, and may have different beliefs and world-views, we share a common biology that is governed by the same principles in the material world.  EEG, galvanic skin response, and heart rate variability are measurable and correlate to emotional experience.  Consciousness studies strives to develop an understanding of the relationship between mind (influenced by media) and body (objectively measurements possible).  Interactive media and video games coupled with biofeedback provide a feedback loop to personalize experiences and entrain.  The Internet allows rapid dissemination of ideas and media (sites like inspire millions).  In the early days of computer technology, we programmed computers to improve efficiency.  In today's world of multimedia, they program us.  How many have become emotionally dependent upon the Internet or the mobile phone?

Although I have not yet met Stephen Schafer or John Stewart in person, we share many common interests and a common goal of actively working toward more peaceful and sustainable ways of being.  We believe that media technologies provide a valuable tool towards achieving this goal.  

Please join us.