Neurogaming Conference 2013: The Enchanting Prelude

13 Aug

For the purposes of this post, we’ll just pretend that “blog” is short for “backlog.” I attended the 1st Neurogaming Conference and Expo in San Francisco in May 2013, but chances are, you weren’t there, and you’ve never heard about Neurogaming, so we’re cool. By the way, I get a real kick out of the fact that this was the first incarnation of this event. This is one of the few instances where you can show up to the party early and have it be a good thing.

NO! This is not neurogaming!

NO! This is not neurogaming!

To start, I’m reminded of a comment that was made by one of the panelists on the “Investing in Neurogaming” panel. He basically said, “NEVER use the word Neurogaming with consumers.” This made me laugh out loud, because it explains the odd looks and slow backing-away when I mention the word to people. The conference actually touched on a number of interesting topics including medical/therapeutic and educational applications, and business/industry considerations in addition to “gaming.”

So, what does it mean exactly? Like any other recently-minted compound buzzword, the answer to that question is somewhat up-for-grabs, so I’ll take a hack at it. For me, neurogaming means the deliberate incorporation of emotional dynamics into the feedback loop of gameplay. Notice that I’m not talking about sensors or lidlocks or pharmaceuticals or mind control or anything like that. In fact, I’m deliberately taking a position that is not based in technology or biology, because it has helped me zero in on what fascinates me about it. I would go so far as to say that using my definition, arguably Neurogaming has been around for decades.

Have a seat = pwnd (literally)

Have a seat = pwnd (literally)

Take for instance (some of) the chess players that you see in a typical metropolitan park. Personally, I get spooked just walking by these guys, watching them move their pieces with efficient lethality before commandingly pummeling their timeclocks. If that doesn’t affect your game, then you should check your pulse.

People play games for any number of reasons, but some kind of emotional kick is almost always at the root of it. However, this dynamic potentially leads to a couple of dead ends.

The calm before the storm

The calm before the storm

First, games inherently require a level of abstract mental processing which competes with and interrupts the emotional experience. Unless you have a very vivid imagination, chess is still some funky-looking pieces on alternate-colored squares, and there’s probably a lot of ping-ponging going on inside your head that keeps you from developing an impractical level of emotional momentum. In fact, for certain games, it’s probably advisable to contain your emotions so that they don’t negatively impact your performance, in which case the emotional payoff is felt afterward. Second, despite the standard bluffs, threats, intimidation and occasional laughter that characterizes most gameplay chatter, there usually isn’t a method for any of this emotional energy to be utilized directly by the game itself. None of this is to suggest that emotions do not have a real effect on gameplay. Even a casual engagement with board games suggests that the opposite is true. However, my definition requires a “deliberate” as opposed to incidental incorporation of emotions. And what better means than technology to facilitate that; hence the conference.

Personally, looking at the trends, technologies, platforms, and prototypes that were discussed at the conference from a few steps back has allowed me to get a better grasp on their implications in other areas, including storytelling and experience design, regardless of whether an actual game is part of the equation.

What? You wanted to hear about the actual conference? I guess I got carried away. In the next post in this series, I share some stories and experiences from the event, including my highlights from the Expo where I attempt to plug my head into everything that I can.

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