Sorting ourselves out

Saturday, 16th of May 2020, 18:13 +02:00

What do someone whispering from very close into a microphone and a jigsaw puzzle have in common?

Regardless if none, one or both of the above videos are your cup of tea, there is a similarity that can be used to answer that initial question. Believe it or not, it actually boils down to one of life's (if not most) important questions; "What is Happiness?".

Okay, this might seem like a bit of a jump, so given the context, let's rewind and put this into a little more perspective by using an example related to mobile game development: Merge games.

Merge Dragons, by Gram Games

To Merge or not to Merge

Merge games have existed for a long time but became much more popular over the past years with the most influential push having been made by Gram Games' Merge Dragons. As we've mentioned in Deconstructor of Fun's 2020 predictions for this year, Merge games revenues have nearly tripled last year.

DoF's Puzzle Game Taxonomy over 2019, showing Merge games' huge increase in revenue.

Being almost halfway throughout this year it seems the trend continues with Gram keeping to rake in the lion's share of Merge game revenue. Newer games in the genre vary from the relatively similar Evermerge to the much more simplified Merge Planes, which only features one chain of mergeable objects in contrast to the vast amount of objects that aforementioned games feature.

Anyone having little affinity with mobile puzzle games looking at the following screenshot of Evermerge would assume it's just "one of those games in which you keep trying to beat puzzles". While it's true that the merge mechanic serves as these games' core gameplay there's one massive difference with the other puzzle games in the taxonomy; the games in which merge mechanics are used lack any kind of win- or lose condition.

Big Fish Games' Evermerge does keep you merging for ever.

On top of lacking a clear path to victory, there's something else that's strange about these games. In games like Merge Dragons and Evermerge, the thing players are spending at least 95% of their time on is simply moving objects from place to place, to be able to merge multitudes of them when the optimal amount (in this case 5 of one kind) is reached.

A merge chain in 'Merge Dragons'. (tap to enlarge)

And yet, there's something soothing about the whole task of finding pairs and categorising them next to each other:

But if players lack a clear goal to win, and they are basically repeating the same action over and over again, what makes these games so fun to play? Why do people keep sorting and merging cats, planes, pizzas, dragons and wooden logs ad infinitum? This question has the same answer as the one that was posed in the beginning of this article.

If videos of someone else sorting an entire box of Wonka's Nerds for 2 hours can rack up nearly half a million views on YouTube, it's not that far of a stretch to assume similar tasks would entice players when presented inside a game environment. It's pretty safe to assume there's something about the essence of tasks like these to be inherently immersive.

This 'something' is often called ASMR (Autonomous Sensory Meridian Response), and it has become more and more of a phenomenon. It began on YouTube about a decade ago and mobile games have started following suit up to the point of today where Hypercasual mobile titles are being designed specifically with pure ASMR in mind. Voodoo's Woodturning 3D is a great example of this (albeit a very mechanical and dry implementation with relatively low gamification).

In games, using feel-good situations when e.g. "something fits perfectly" is nothing new. It's just another psychological "trick" that can be used to invoke tiny but gratifying positive emotions within your immersive experience. It's hard to say how much of it was intentional during its development, but ASMR is a big reason why people love Tetris, or to use a more modern-day example 'Escape From Tarkov' and its mesmerising inventory management.

These gratifying experiences work well simply because everyone is to some degree wired to seek out these activities, especially those in need of escapism. Without any clarification, give an isolated prisoner a checkerboard and a bag of skittles and (depending on how long ago they have eaten Skittles) there's a good chance you'll see them starting to organise and sort these Skittles by colour, oftentimes using the pattern of the checkerboard's surface. It's a relatively simple yet adequate way to lose track of time.

And because you've been reading this article for a while now, here's a reward, just to make you feel good about this achievement:

Feels good doesn't it? Keep reading for more Sensory Responses!

The Pursuit of Happiness

From building & watching Dominos to nurturing Bonsai, from pure silent meditation to playing tennis and from collecting stamps to gathering crown caps (like yours truly). All these activities can be linked to the same mental state: the state of Flow, when one is fully immersed in whatever they are doing. Citing this state of mind has become a cliché in Game Design theory, but this is simply because it's the most relevant phenomenon used to explain what the intended experience of playing a video game is.

Mihály Csíkszentmihályi claims that being happy is being immersed. To some people this sounds like preaching escapism, but escapism is a natural necessity to prevent burnout. We should never forget there are two forms of escapism, as classified by Norwegian psychologist Frode Stenseng.

1. Escapism as self-suppression, a negative activity involving running away from the unpleasant
2. Escapism as self-expansion, with the goal of gaining positive experiences or discovering new aspects of the self

Natural escapism has become more and more of a rarity in today's information overloaded society, which has caused the existence of a Game Designer's job to become increasingly useful. We can make this job easier if we build our immersive experiences around the essence of tasks that naturally invoke immersion, such as ASMR activities.

Lots of Flow-inducing activities already involve some kind of ASMR-invoking mechanics. Imagine the amazing feeling of aiming a basketball to land somewhere exactly where you intended it to. These feelings can spark the desire for yet another moment of pure immersion (leading up to a climax), to potentially be followed by that kick of dopamine when everything falls into place.

Super Hexagon by Terry Cavanagh

So here's a tip (and the promised dose of ASMR): Search Imgur for "oddly satisfying" and eat your heart out. Simple, everyday phenomena can serve as sources of inspiration when trying to find the essence of what feels good.

Who knows; maybe you'll find the essence of your next hit-game.

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