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Game/Mental State pt.5

In part 4 I explained how we have learned to boost our cognitive abilities by developing and using our brains in specialized ways. One way involves mental channels, and the other method is extending our minds. It is commonly thought that our brains and are minds are not entirely the same thing. In fact, the brain-mind issue is a long debated subject in the field of philosophy. I won't go into great detail into these philosophical debates. Rather, I want to lift a concept out of the work of David Chalmers who states that the brain and the mind aren't the same and that the mind can be extended into the world.

Extended Minds and Brain Boosts

Lifting a few paragraphs from my final paper for my "Philosophy of the Mind" course...

The basic idea is that there is little disagreement among philosophers on where the mind begins. The individual, subjective, and private theater of our thoughts gives us a common intuition that at least part of our minds is contain within our bodies. And by bodies, I mean underneath our skin. And by underneath our skin, I mean within our skulls. And by within our skulls, well, I could keep going, but getting down the the exact medical parts is a bit tricky and unnecessary. The point is that the mind is not the brain but something like the brain.

On the other side of the "where is my mind" issue, some have been swayed by arguments that look at how language and symbols point to things outside of one’s body. They believe that if words can point to external things then so can the mind. Clark and Chalmers propose a new middle ground in their article called “active externalism” that allows for the mind to extend outside of the body (the externalism part) only when these outside elements fulfill specific requirements in how the user uses them (the active part).



image on left from

image on right from

Put another way, there are philosophers and scientists who have lots of conclusive research showing that our external actions actually help boost our cognitive abilities. I love how the research of Kirsh and Maglio even features an experiment using the video game Tetris as evident in their publication titled "Some Epistemic Benefits of Action: Tetris, a Case Study." The following is their abstract:


 "We present data and argument to show that in Tetris - a real-time interactive video game - certain cognitive and perceptual problems are more quickly, easily, and reliably solved by performing actions in the world rather than by performing computational actions in the head alone. We have found that some transactions and rotations are best understood as using the world to improve cognition. They are not being used to implement a plan, or to implement a reaction..."


In some ways I'm telling you what you already know; getting hands on with an activity or a game can help you work out problems far better than if you simply tried to think through it in your head. However, I presented my case giving you the philosophical background and supporting research to show that extended minds is a serious subject that has nuances that are trickier than you know.


See Video Here


Perhaps the best way to put it is we can literally think by doing. This idea is echoed by Patrick Winston. According to Patrick Winston and his research at MIT, we think with our hands, and our eyes, our stories, by writing, drawing, acting out, and many other activities (see video above. skip to 7:00 if you're short on time). More convincingly, these claims should resonate with your own experiences as a gamer. To illustrate how, I should only have to remind you of one type of challenge: sliding-block puzzles.


Why Sliding Block Puzzles Are So Hard

Yes, sliding-block puzzles. Play one here on Kongregate. Mention these challenges on a message forum like NeoGaf and you're bound to receive a few vehement responses. Going purely on sales and popularity, puzzle gamers represent a small portion of gamers. I think this is the case for many reasons. In general, puzzle games require more analyzing knowledge skills than action-games because they're design to test logic and strategy rather than reward tactical gameplay and real-time skills (timing, reflex, dexterity). In general, you cannot level up to make puzzle games easier or switch to a lower difficulty mode. In this way puzzle games can be straight forward and pretty difficult. Being a huge puzzle gamer, I've wondered what makes sliding block puzzles so difficult?

To start sliding block puzzles tend to be very simple and somewhat abstract. The more abstract a challenge, the less likely players will be able to intuit rules and strategies from their lived experiences to help them overcome the challenge. Sliding block puzzle challenges simply don't come up to often in day-to-day life. So, we must learn on the spot. When players are faced with learning anything, naturally trial-and-error is the learning method we use. And it is here where things get really interesting.


The solution to level 2 of the game linked above. 

Sliding block puzzles are challenging only when the solution isn't obvious. If you can only make one move and that move gets you to the goal, the puzzle isn't much of a puzzle. Likewise, if there's only two moves needed to win, such a sliding block puzzle would be easy as well. If you increase the challenge so that the minimal moves it takes to solve the puzzle gets to about 10, then you have a much more challenging puzzle that can be far more than 2 times harder than a 5-move-minimum puzzle. Why? Even though we're only talking about a theoretical sliding block puzzle, we've already established a few key pieces of information about the scenario.

1) The number of permutations of possible moves increases at an alarming rate with every move necessary to solve the puzzle. Recall the article Complexities You Can Count On for a detailed look at how the number of possible combinations can quickly grow simply because of emergence.

2) Once the minimum moves hits about 7 or so, there will be dozens of combinations to try. Trying them all will take a long time. So, without a puzzle reading method to cut down on unfruitful moves, you'll have to rely on luck.

3) Planning moves ahead is a difficult task in itself. Doing so in your head is even harder because it quickly uses up the 7+2 bits of processing power in your STM. Especially without a puzzle reading method, you'll be lucky if you can see about 4 moves ahead. So, if the goal is only reachable after a minimum of about 10 moves, it is impossible to see the solution moves ahead of time until you've gotten over the "hump" of weeding through hundreds of other unfruitful possibilities. After all, seeing the solution clearly is a matter of reducing the shear volume of possibilities. 

4) Trial and error may be effective given enough time, but it's slow and blind. The method requires stabbing into the dark, analyzing the results, and making adjustments and educated guesses. When faced with a challenge of many possibilities and an impossible to see solution path, how can one determine if a trial was ultimately good or bad? It seems like the shear magnitude of possibilities, once again, prevents us from making any real progress. In other words, if making an educated guess when analyzing trials can only be done if you understand how to reach the solution and whether or not your trial came closer to it, then even trial-and-error will not be very successful for solving increasingly complex puzzles. 


The root of our sliding-block-puzzle problem is our limited mental abilities. So, the solution is to either boost our brains or to force ourselves to stop and really focus on developing a puzzle reading method according to the sliding block puzzle gameplay dynamics (most likely the dynamic of 2D space). Knowing that patience is a rarity among gamers (and people in general) and that it wears thin quickly due to frustration, I believe that most gamers opt for the brain boost. As we know from the researched I linked to above, physically moving pieces around in a sliding block puzzle significantly increases a player's ability to think spatially. Put another way, you think and perform trial attempts all by sliding around the blocks in the game. By doing so, you extend and boost your mind. Instead of trying to think several moves ahead, you simply go for it and see what happens thinking as your moving. You never have to waste brain power wondering what will happen because it's much quicker and more efficient just to try it.


Success? Victory? Mission Complete? Game Over? Not quite. There is one glaring drawback to using hands-on-extended-minds to solve sliding block puzzles. The brain boost you get from manipulating the game can actually work against you if you cannot get over the complexity "hump." Basically, your mind is limited without the boost, and it is still limited with the boost (just less so). If you can't get close enough to see the solution with your brain boosted, then the only thing that can get you closer to your goal (outside of luck, blind trial-and error, and cheating) is analyzing the game and developing a puzzle reading strategy, both of which require higher level cognition (brain power). So, going hands-on will not work as long as the puzzle is sufficiently complex. And puzzle games tend to get very complex in the later, more difficult levels. Yet, many puzzle game fans and masters still find ways to succeed. So, the question is, where do we get this extra brain power after we've boosted to our limits?

The answer is, we don't get extra brain power. The only way to develop effective reading strategies is to consider specific gameplay rules and scenarios. Specific is the key word here. To to hold specific complexities (data) in your head requires brain power. If all of your power is used up exploring different puzzle-gameplay possibilities while boosted (using the external game for the boost) then it is impossible to analyze the results of your trial. To succeed, one must stay comfortably within their mental limits even when brain boosting. So, pushing your exploration of the game beyond your ability to remember what you've done is a perfect way to feel like you're working out a solution while actually doing more harm than good. If you don't believe me or if you can't relate to these experiences, keep playing the sliding block puzzle I linked to above. If that game is too easy play this much better game, Impasse. At some point you'll probably get stuck. If you do, remember the feeling. The sensation hitting a brick wall in terms of progress where you don't know what to do next and you're completely lost is frightfully similar to the misplaced memory phenomenon I described in part two of this series.


Put as simply as I can, if you extend your mind using some external tool and you max out your efforts, you will not have the extra brain power necessary to even remember or reflect on what you have done. When computers do this, they freeze and crash. We are no different. If you find yourself running the same exact combinations of moves over and over (10-100 times) in a sliding block puzzle level then you've experienced first hand what it's like to be stuck in a loop where to think about a trial (in order to consider what to do different) you must first replay the trial JUST to remember it.

Puzzle 118 Garbage Disposal from Professor Layton and the Diabolical Box is the sliding block puzzle that gave me incredible trouble. Above I explained how a 10 step sliding block puzzle is especially difficult because of how the number of permutations/possibilities grow with every additional step. This Layton puzzle requires 30 steps minimum! See all 30 steps in the link. This puzzle is by far the hardest non-extra puzzle in the game. I played it for 5 hours before I solved it. Since I have a lot of patience and practice when it comes to solving puzzles I persevered through it. But, can you imaging what it was like to be stuck for that long?


Understanding how players think and the mental processes they go through when solving problems is the key to designing the next generation of tutorials, hints, tips, tricks, and even levels. Overall, everything discussed in this article series helps me design better video games and educational programs. In part 6 I'll pull all the concepts together and discuss more design applications.  

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Reader Comments (2)

Heh. I guess that explains why I don't like sliding block puzzles. I guess I'm not as into that sudden "aha" moment, and just prefer making relatively steady progress with occasional, smaller leaps of insight - that is, externalizing more of that exploration into the state of the game itself in a persistent way (that ratchets progress) instead of figuring it all out in my head ahead of time.

I can definitely see how tools can extend minds and change the way we think. My habit of journaling and writing down all sorts of stuff in notebooks over the past few years has significantly changed and accelerated my process for introspection and organizing my life. More recently, I've discovered how other people can also extend minds in a similar way.

September 28, 2011 | Unregistered Commenteraxcho

@ axcho

Good to hear. Indeed, writing or sketching out ideas is the best way to test if you have things as clearly imagined as you thought. That introspection boost is a wonderful thing, isn't it? I currently in my 3rd critical-gaming notebook. I completely filled up 2 over the years with all of my notes and drawings. I should find a way to post it one of these days.

September 28, 2011 | Registered CommenterRichard Terrell (KirbyKid)

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