GE1.png["Gambrian Explosion" is a new GameSetWatch-exclusive column by game researcher Mitu Khandaker looking at game design through the lens of art, culture, science, philosophy, and general lateral thinking.]

Welcome to the first ever 'Gambrian Explosion' column! The title is, of course, an unabashedly cheesy pun; taken from the inimitable Will Wright’s description of the games industry as currently undergoing its own Cambrian Explosion.

This refers to the period of rapid diversification of lifeforms 500 million years ago. This is indeed what is happening to games right now, and evolution - whether applied to biology or game design - is brilliant, healthy, and exciting.

Gambrian Explosion is also an attempt to further catalyze such a diversification, by taking a playful look at the possible intersections between games and other interesting things. Of course, if we’re lucky, this approach might lead us stumbling blindly into some genuinely interesting notions which we may apply to games. On the other hand, as is true of the evolutionary process, some of these forays may be doomed to failure. Evolution is wonderful, but also wonderfully treacherous.

Evolution also happens to be the topic of this inaugural piece. Though it may seem that way, this wasn’t by design, and is totally incidental. (You know, also like evolution... Sorry? Sorry.)

So, from the beginning then. While things resembling ‘life’ began on this pale blue dot over 4000 million years ago, it was a mere 6 million years ago that we split from chimpanzees, and left our largely arboreal existence in Africa to take a stab at wandering the savannah.

This happened to work out quite well (for us, anyway). It turns out that there are some interesting takeaways from thinking about our early ancestors, and about the kind of thinking they did, even 1.5 million years ago. Let’s begin with art, design, and technology.

There is evidence that we’ve been using tools even before the Homo genus existed, over 2.5 million years ago. Homo Sapiens (that's us) only appeared about 200,000 years ago - and only became as behaviourally advanced as we are now, only 50,000 years ago. Despite this early use of tools, the pinnacle of Homo Erectus’ work, 1.5 million years ago, were Achulean hand axes; that is, masterfully crafted teardrop shaped stones, designed for killing.

Interestingly though, vast quantities of these axes have been unearthed across Europe, Africa and Asia; far more than would have actually been used by Homo Erectus. Indeed, many appear completely unmarked, suggesting that they were made for purposes beyond simple utility.

Philosophy of Art Professor Denis Dutton, states in his TED Talk A Darwinian Theory of Beauty, that their “symmetry, attractive materials, and meticulous workmanship are quite beautiful to our eyes, even today.” These axes were “the earliest known works of art”, and, therefore, being good at making quality handaxes were a sign of fitness, which would attract mates.

We can suppose, then, that even in Homo Erectus there was a love of mastery, of skill, and a sense of aesthetic pleasure. These are qualities that have endured in us for over a million years and so thinking about how we evolved to be this way may help us when we come to design things - including video games - for our fellow modern humans.

But where should we look to understand this a little better? How about the widely-referenced ‘triune’ model of the human brain, popularised in 1977 by Carl Sagan in his book The Dragons of Eden. The model surmises that the brain is formed of three parts: the reptilian brain, the limbic system, and the neocortex. What is delightful about this model is that, although more recent neuroanatomy has found this to be overly simplistic, the triune is still a very useful model to use in thinking about human behaviour.

Firstly, the reptilian (“lizard”) brain governs the most rudimentary of our behaviours; that is, those concerned with survival: aggression, territoriality, and similar. Moving up a layer, the limbic (“mammalian”) brain is concerned with emotional learning and memory modulation - it is this part of the brain that can be “conditioned” to react to certain stimuli. It is also responsible for the activation of our various brain-drugs such as dopamine - the ‘reward system’ of the brain, and for pleasure, and addiction.

This seems a sensible point at which to come back to video games. Thanks to the recent prevalence of social games, discussions have been rife comparing video games to Skinner boxes, referring to the behaviourist experiment putting rats in boxes and training them using simple dopamine-releasing stimuli.

Although this has been criticized by some as being reductionist, it is clear that games do, at least, elicit reward through feedback mechanisms. Mastery, for example, is a large part of what the fun of games is about, as stated by many influential designers, including Raph Koster in his A Theory of Fun for Game Design. It’s that process of trying-failing-improving-and-finally-achieving. It is necessarily about repeated actions.

Given that the limbic system regulates these reward systems plus our decision making, we could sensibly place much of our enjoyment of video games within this mammalian hemisphere. This is not necessarily a bad thing in itself, of course, and does not devalue the joy we feel when figuring out a puzzle in Limbo, or bettering our previous performance in Chime.

But it’s also true that our brains encourage us to behave in ways that seem like a legacy from early phases of evolution. Our love for overly sugary and fatty food, for example, is thanks in large part to our primeval drive to eat this way so as to avoid a famine. It's a famine that our rational brains know isn’t coming, yet, we still indulge in our instincts, even though our condition has advanced beyond their need.

Of course, being the tool-using advanced creatures that we are, we can also harness our reward-seeking limbic systems, manipulating them to better ourselves using technology - specifically, using video games. This is an idea that is currently being explored by writers and designers such as Jane McGonigal, and is a concept that has been labelled “gamification”.

Though gamification is, at present, a troubled and much-contested concept (thanks in large part to being so widely misapplied, and oversimplified), applications which apply feedback mechanics to real-life tasks have no doubt had some positive social impact. Runkeeper and NikePlus, for instance, have helped many become more fitter and healthier. Or, in a more obviously ‘gamey’ way, EpicWin has brought a newfound sense of playfulness to otherwise dreary everyday tasks.

There is no doubt that a slew of personal and social issues can be addressed both through these kind of rewarding, feedback mechanisms that games are good at, and through the way in which they exhibit systemizing behaviour. This, combined with another fantastic facet of the human brain - neuroplasticity - means that video games can, in short, to teach us to better ourselves as humans, simply by doing all the things we’ve always seen video games to be good at... so far. We are gaming evolution: taking advantage of the way the mammalian brain is wired to rewire the brain.

But what of games that engage that third brain hemisphere: the neocortex? This is the part that deals with ‘conscious thought’, and “higher brain functions”.

Even the most cynical amongst us may concede that the ‘Skinnerian’ nature of a game perhaps lays along a spectrum. Quite simply, besides ‘cleverly scheduled rewards’, there are usually other things that we also enjoy about games. For example, like our distant Homo Erectus predecessors, the aesthetic pleasure we get from the game’s artwork, or perhaps, particularly amongst game designers and/or critics, the display of skill by the developers in having created that game.

Such an appreciation for the skill of others is a of course a more recent and advanced complex brain function, though this was still 1.4 million years ago. After all, if we are to concede that games are art, what are they then, but highly evolved Archulean hand axes?

It is interesting, then, to wonder what else games may do to engage our higher brain functions in ways they have not done so previously. After all, the potential here must be huge. Being human is wonderful, and troubling, but above all, it is complex.

Indeed, one of the brilliant things about being human is the ability to conquer our very humanness itself. To overcome our mammalian desires to reward ourselves with junk food, and to conquer our reptilian fears of the unknown. We are able to forgive; we can love unconditionally. We are able to exercise self-control, and discipline. As humans, we have the ability to be better than ourselves.

A classic illustration of this is the 1972 Stanford Marshmallow Experiment, which was a study on delayed gratification in preschool children. In the study, a marshmallow was offered to each child, but they were told that if they could resist eating the marshmallow straight away, they would receive two marshmallows instead of one.

While a third of the children managed to resist the first marshmallow long enough to receive the second, it was the follow-up studies that were most interesting; it seemed as though those who had shown self-control as a pre-school child ended up more successful in later life, with results correlating with higher SAT scores.

While the breadth of video games out there which actively embrace and take advantage of our humanness is very worthy, what of games which seek to appeal to these anti-instincts in us?

Perhaps one game that already fits such a remit is A Slow Year, the Atari 2600-based collection of ‘game poems’ by the eminent Ian Bogost. These are games “about the experience of observing things”; a truly Zen sort of motivation, in which we are to focus on nothing but what is happening - very slowly - in front of us, and forget our primitive, chattering, anxious brains.

After all, in an excerpt from the book The Art of Travel, writer Alain de Botton suggests: “It [is] as if a vital evolutionary advantage had been bestowed centuries ago on those members of the species who lived in a state of concern about what was to happen next. These ancestors might have failed to savour their experiences appropriately, but they had at least survived and shaped the character of their descendants; while their more focused siblings, at one with the moment and with the place where they stood, had met violent ends on the horns of unforeseen bison.”

Another such game may be Journey, the upcoming PS3 title from thatgamecompany, creators of flOw and Flower (further possible contenders for games beyond our ordinary humanness). Journey posits a lone protagonist, venturing across a vast unknown wilderness, evoking a sense of “awe and mystery”.

While the feeling of exploration is a theme set forth by many games featuring open worlds, the interesting thing about Journey is the lack of co-operative play with ones’ friends. Instead, it seems to be about the experience of briefly connecting with strangers in the wild. Creative Director Jenova Chen suggests: “You shouldn't know who the other person and why should you care whether this other 'journeyer' is a 60 year old woman or a kid; that doesn't matter.”

Instead, then, we are to feel “tiny and weak” again in the vastness, but sharing moments with our fellow humans to remind ourselves of our shared vulnerability. From an evolutionary perspective, then, Journey encourages us, perhaps, to look beyond our tribal reptilian and mammalian brains, and instead embrace the deep interconnectedness we have with all humans.

All this, then, is at the frontier of humanness, of our neocortex. It seems appropriate to consider what may lay even further beyond this. How will our brains evolve next and, how will our technology, video games included, help us to get there? I leave you with this very appropriate quote from the irreplaceable Carl Sagan:

“By the time we’re able to settle even the nearest planetary systems, we will have changed. The simple passage of so many generations will have changed us. Necessity will have changed us. We’re an adaptable species. It will not be we who reach Alpha Centauri and the other nearby stars. It will be a species very like us, but with more of our strengths, and fewer of our weaknesses. More confident, farseeing, capable, and prudent.

For all our failings, despite our limitations and fallibilities, we humans are capable of greatness.”

[Mitu Khandaker is a games PhD researcher, and wearer of several other hats, all of which you can keep track of at Mitu.nu (where you’ll also find her other writing). She has a few nascent game development projects currently in the works, and is planning a regular podcast to accompany Gambrian Explosion. You can contact her at mitu AT mitu.nu or follow her on Twitter.]