Our brain tricks us into making worse games! Our brain is tricky, the consciousness wants to be the center of attention and want to put itself in the spotlight. When designing games your conscious mind takes up most of the attention while your subconscious mind is left in the dark. The problem here is that when playing games the subconscious mind is doing most of the work for the player. As a designer (of any kind) I believe it is your job to be aware of the inner workings of the player and your own, the subconscious mind, just as much as the player´s conscious thoughts. To make this easier to understand I will try to visualize how the subconscious and conscious mind work and the relationship between the two. I will shine a light on the dark side of our brain.
Consciousness and subconsciousness is a way to divide functionality
The concept of consciousness and subconsciousness is a way of dividing the functionality in the brain. The conscious is a generic term for all the functionality that we feel we have control over, like comparison, critical thinking and allocate attention. The subconscious is a generic term for all the functionality that we don’t feel we have agency over, like reflexes, balance and recognition of objects. Another thing separating the two groups is that the subconsciousness work much faster than the consciousness.
You underestimate your subconsciousness in favour of your consciousness
The problem is that when you think of what defines you, you only think about the actions that your conscious brain performs. When you perform a subconscious action like, say, flicking your arm to wave away a fly, you never think “Ah, that’s me all right, flicking away a fly”. But when you choose clothes for a party, you could definitely see those actions representing yourself as a person. We see thoughts that we believe defines us to be more important than something as banal as flicking away a fly. This is a common pitfall when we play and design games. Coming up with a design feature for our conscious mind is a lot easier than creating one for our subconscious mind. For example, it is easier to implement a shop system than it is fine-tuned design for enemy behaviour. Why? Well, because a shop system is a game system for the conscious brain – it allows the player to make conscious decisions in the game world, like choosing their next weapon and spending currency. You give the player agency. Designing enemy behaviour on the other hand is less intuitive, because you can only base your design decisions on your own conscious perception of the gameplay. Many have tried to visualise how to design game for the subconscious experience, often used words such as “game feel”, “This feels right” or “juice it!” I hope my contribution to this topic will help to easier understands these concepts.
The fast subconsciousness
Take a look at this experiment (Kahneman, Daniel, 2011): Two pictures were presented to people laying down in a brain scanner. Each picture was shown for less than 0.02 seconds and was immediately masked by visual noise – a random display of dark and bright squares. When the researchers looked at the scans the brain activity blossomed up when the participants “saw” the eyes. The interesting part was that when they asked the participants if they have seen the eyes, every participant said no, despite the obvious brain activity. The participants never realized they had seen the pictures of the eyes because it was only registered in the subconscious part of their brains. This tells us two things: We can register the information from the environment around us even if it’s visible for only a few milliseconds, and there is a lot of brain activity out of reach for our conscious thoughts. One report I came across during my research said that we unconsciously process approximately 11 million bits per second of information while only consciously processing 50 bits per second (Wiliam, Dylan, 2006). That’s a relationship of 22 000 to 1. When we design player experiences we tend to priorities those 50 bits per second, while ignoring the other twenty-two thousand more bits. Think of the exceptionally fine-tuned experiences we would be able to build if we took all of them into account.
The slow consciousness
If we buy that we perceive things as fast as 0.02 seconds and only extract the most important information to the consciousness – how slow does that make our consciousness? One experiment can give us a rule of thumb for the speed of our consciousness (Soon, Chun Siong, 2008). The experiment was explained as followed:
“The subjects were asked to relax while fixating on the center of the screen where a stream of letters was presented. At some point, when they felt the urge to do so, they were to freely decide between one of two buttons, operated by the left and right index fingers, and press it immediately”.
Pressing one of the buttons is truly an action of our consciousness, there is nothing to react to. The participants choose when they want to press one of the buttons. The interesting part is that they found out that they could predict when the subject would do their action 1-2 seconds before the action were performed by looking at their brainwaves.
How Consciousness and Subconsciousness perceive Mario´s jump
A more game related example of how our conscious mind only works with a compressed projection of our perceived reality is Mario’s jump. When Mario jumps, it is perceived as a normal, evenly spaced jump. In actuality, Mario’s jump is tweaked to match the timing that an action needs to feel right. It’s uneven. It takes 18 frames to reach the top of the arc and only 10 frames to land. If the jump took an equal number of frames to reach the top as it took to land it wouldn’t look too different, but the game feel would change. If you compared them the players would prefer the uneven one, despite not really seeing what the difference between them was. This is because our subconscious brain perceives it much faster than our conscious brain, and therefore notices a change without really seeing it. In this case it’s the slight timing difference that changes the feel. By increasing the fall speed, you are minimising the time the player needs to wait before they can perform the next action. This shows how small details like changing a few frames matters. The problem here is that it’s hard to say why you would like the jump with a faster downfall, because consciously it will be experienced the same as the evenly spaced version. There is only a hunch that the fast downfall jump is better.
Now we start to get a feel of how our subconscious operates. The subconscious analyses the game frame by frame, while it compromises everything that happens during around one second and sends that information to our consciousness. Mario´s jump will be observed every frame subconsciously and consciously it will get the compressed to a regular jump. This also tells us that we not only think our conscious actions are more important, they will also only be based on compromised information. To trust your “gut feel” can a lot of the times be better because it is based on all the information the subconscious picks up. To repeat the numbers, the subconscious can perceive things as fast as 0.02 seconds and the consciousness perceive things within 1-2 seconds.
One last thing, The Reaction time
There is one last variable to get a good understanding of the subconscious game design concept – our reaction time. The best way to test this is to get interactable! Click the link to test your reaction time:
You probably performed around 0.275 second. What happens inside your brain during these milliseconds is a long chain of operations: You will perceive the environment, identify a particular object of interest (the shift in color in this case), determine what muscles are needed to press the mouse button and then perform the action. This is our subconscious reaction time. By knowing that our conscious perception is around 1 seconds we can design a game were the player is able to perform multiple subconscious reactions before being aware of it. We can also rely on the reaction time when we design our games. As an example, I like to put my cooldowns (and almost all game feel related variables) at 0.2 seconds. This creates an impression of not being able to spam the action but still allows the player to perform a new action towards a new goal.
To sum up:
The player consciously perceives things at around 1 second, react within 0.2 seconds and subconsciously perceives things down to 0.02. Instead of relying on the abstract concept of gut feel we can use these concrete numbers when designing for the players subconscious. A good practice when you design your game is to think that the game is running in slow-motion and you zoomed in on the specific event. When designing a jump, the three frames of anticipation, slight shift in the character´s stance, the effects when the feet leaves the ground and the hair becoming weightless as the character changes their trajectory will all be noticed and make a huge difference despite them only being flashes of movement. Same goes for every other design decision in your game. Every detail matters.
Talk about subconscious game design
“We should have a one frame freeze when the enemy is hit, the player will notice unconsciously”
“We should add a three-frame outline of the explosion to highlight the damage area, the player will notice unconsciously”
“How does that laser beam look in slow motion? It should look good in slow motion”
I recommend seeing the GDC talk from Martin Jonasson and Petri Purho – juice it or lose it with subconsciousness in mind and that the details they add will be perceive less important for the conscious but the subconscious will be very satisfied.
Wiliam, Dylan. “The half‐second delay: what follows?.” Pedagogy, Culture & Society 14.01 (2006): 71-81.
Kahneman, Daniel. Thinking, fast and slow. Macmillan, 2011.
Soon, Chun Siong, et al. “Unconscious determinants of free decisions in the human brain.” Nature neuroscience 11.5 (2008): 543-545
Wong, Aaron L., Adrian M. Haith, and John W. Krakauer. “Motor planning.” The Neuroscientist 21.4 (2015): 385-398.
Thanks to all my proof readers and feedback (Sebastian Larsson <3). A special thanks for Elsa Varland for a complete rewrite of the article.