Have you ever tried to remember a completely visceral event from your life? It’s easy right? It’s like a snapshot burned into your head. What if you were told that you probably had it wrong? You wouldn’t believe that, would you? You were there. It’s your memory. You know exactly what happened. Well, it turns out, you might not. These types of memories are often called flashbulb memories, and it turns out they are the most susceptible to morphing into something we find unrecognizable.
For the last few years I’ve been giving one of the most enjoyable talks that I do at the Serious Play Conference. Each year I update the research so that people who attend multiple talks get some new information, but the message remains the same. How can we design memorable experiences for students when our memories are so imperfect?
Let’s think about this for a moment. 9/11 was a day that changed our country. Almost any person older than 10 years old on that day in 2001 probably has their own set of very visceral memories surrounding when they found out. Watching the towers fall. Being glued to our TV sets. Most of us have very real memories of seeing the 1st plane hit the 1st tower sometime that morning. Think about it. When was the first time you saw that footage? Where were you? What time was it?
We all saw the second plane hit the second tower, because so many news cameras were trained on the towers after the first plane struck. I believed that I had seen the 1st plane hit the 1st tower sometime that morning on the news. But it turns out I was wrong. Because nobody expected a plane to hit one of the towers, there weren’t cameras trained on it. So I couldn’t have seen that video until sometime the next day, on September 12th when the video aired for the first time.
New York University executed a ground-breaking study following 9/11 in which thousands of people in major metropolitan areas were asked to document their experience on that day. Those people again documented at the 1, 5, and 10-year anniversaries of 9/11. 40% of the participants in that study had altered their recollection of that day. So much so that they had a hard time believing the original recollections they had written. Scientists chalk this up to the high emotions of the event combined with our brain replaying a single event many times in many settings leading to the eventual shifting and re-consolidation of those memories.
There are many accounts of weirdness when it comes to our memory. Brian Williams, the Mandela Effect (that one is a bit twisted, but interesting nonetheless). Our memory is truly imperfect. There are other fun facts that I’ll blog about separately.
And enter stage left….games. If we want to use games because they provide experiences (which I do), then how can we be sure that those experiences are even going to be remembered? The key to creating memorable game experiences is thankfully simple. It’s about leveraging human affordances whenever possible, it’s about simulating experiences that might have been flashbulb memories because they were so traumatic in a safe way, and it’s about replay. Those three elements, when combined, can help overcome mis-learning and false memory in a way that is unique to games and simulations.
First, let’s talk quickly about affordances. While usability and experience design are certainly important aspects of affordances, again, I like to think about the affordances that are less involved with the physical and more involved with the cognitive. When we open the door to a dark room, for example, whichever hand isn’t opening the door will unconsciously move to the inside of the wall and start looking for a light switch. It may or may not be there, but we will likely look for it. When we experience a game for the first time, we often employ the affordance of searching out what we can find that we can interact with. Like using our mouse or controller to move over objects to see if they are selectable and learning the interface dynamics. The first important way to get people to remember what you’re trying to teach them in experiences is to not do anything that violates the cognitive affordances that a person holds, because doing so will continuously detract from what you want them to focus on.
Second, removing the trauma for traumatic experiences. Games and simulations may depict some events that would be incredibly traumatic if they happened in person. If you need reference of this, just imagine being present and in person for just about any scenario in the game Halo. Abject terror and trauma. By providing these types of situations in a safe form like a game or sim, we allow learners to be exposed to potential traumatic events and practice within them without creating those flashbulb memories that evoke emotion. Forming a kind of muscle memory if you will. So that the first time they experience these things in real life they have a foundation of process and information in the form of past experiences to draw from. When it comes to traumatic experiential games there is an element of motivation that comes into play. Namely, that life or death events that we train for do evoke a very different motivational construct for us, but let’s save that gem for another post soon.
Finally, replay. Replay replay replay. This one is the hardest one. I don’t know if you guys have ever played a game on Acquisition, but I can honestly say nobody has ever stayed up all night with a six pack of mountain dew and some hot pockets playing them. Fortunately, Acquisition is usually not going to elicit a traumatic experience, so at least we’ve got that going for us. All games should foster and promote replay whenever possible. In the form of beating a score, in the form of providing multiple paths and goal structures, and in the form of just being interesting enough that someone would want to play it again.