UI Modification, Cognitive Overload and Game Play

Welcome to the first Motivate.Play blog entry!

Our plan is to post new content at a rate of about one entry per week. I’ve been lucky enough to be chosen to lead off, and so today I thought I’d write a think piece that may better explain the perspective that I approach games from, and use this space to float an idea for a new avenue of research. Hopefully this can spark some debate between both the community, and my co-authors here, and get us off on to a good start.

Today I'd like to start off by discussing a theoretical idea that has been kicking around in my mind. Before I can do that, I have to give you a background about the theoretical basis I approach MMO games from. For those of you that may be familiar with the background and wish to skip that part, I’ve broken the entry into two easy to navigate parts: the Background Information and the Main Post.

1. Background Information

The primary theory that I work with is Lang’s LC4MP (Limited Capacity Model of Motivated Mediated Message Processing). This data-driven model of human cognition and media processing has some basic assumptions that we’ll need to understand as we progress here (Both in today’s entry, and in future ones that I make, most likely). The primary assumptions are that humans are limited capacity information processors, and that all cognitive processing happens over time. This means that we have something called “cognitive resources,” which are required for taking information from our environment, devoting attention (cognitive resources) to it, and then processing it. Each person has a single pool of cognitive resources, and each person’s is different – however, once a task calls for more cognitive resources than are available, we enter a state of cognitive overload. In other words, once cognitive resources are used, they’re used – tied up in the processing task at hand. To process new information we need to stop using them on a task they’re already being used on, and devote them to the new one. Either way, at the point of overload we lose the ability to process all of the things we need to or want to process at that moment. For now, I think it is sufficient to just say that “processing” is the encoding (intake), storage, and retrieval of information from our short and long term memory. If this point causes confusion, I can elaborate later.

There are two ways in which cognitive resources can be devoted to a task: automatically, and as a controlled process. Automatic allocation of cognitive resources occurs when something novel enters our environment. Things that are new to the environment, things that we have learned are important, and things that are motivationally relevant (mates, food, things that can hurt us), can all cause an Orienting Response (OR). Pavlov was the first one to characterize the orienting response, and he called it the “what is it” response. You can see this process happening all the time – the next time that you’re sitting in a meeting, or a classroom, wait for someone to open the door. Watch how many people’s heads turn towards the door see what is going on. They are orienting to the change in the environment. There are several physiological signals that also signal that we’re having an OR. These include pupil dilation, increased skin conductance, and a 6-10 second deceleration of the heart rate, and these will probably be important in the future. For our purposes today, it is enough to just understand that orienting means we are attending to something without thinking about it, and we’re devoting cognitive resources to figuring out what the thing we’re orienting to is. The process is said to be automatic because it is out of our control – it happens whether we want it to or not.

Controlled attention is the opposite. If we’re trying to focus on something, say a math problem, and we’re focusing intently on it, we are trying to devote as many cognitive resources to it as we can. This process can still be interrupted easily by things that cause OR’s, but think of controlled attention as effortful, and automatic attention as effortless.

In the world of media processing, we talk about structural features of media that cause orienting responses. We call these Orienting Eliciting Structural Features or OESFs. In the visual realm these are things like camera changes, flashes of light, and cuts.  Audio analogs exist as well: voice changes, the onset of a tone, hearing a sexy word. So to translate this to a game world, imagine you’re in a combat situation, and you’re waiting for your big ability to be ready for use. You’re busy doing other things; perhaps you’re keeping your party alive, or happily beating something over the head with a club, either way, when that ability is ready, there is usually some kind of visual indicator or audio indicator, or both (If you play WoW, think about the new proc system and how many things pop up on your screen when your abilities proc). That structural feature is important to you, and you’ll automatically allocate resources to figure out what it means. Even if all it means is “MASH THE 4 BUTTON NOW!!1!” as long as you have cognitive resources left, you’re able to process that and pull off your big ability.

I think we’re ready now for the real post!

2. Main Post

One of the most frustrating but humorous comments I hear about games is “I’m too old to play games like that” or “I’m just not good at games like that” when people watch World of Warcraft (WoW) raiding. What they fail to realize is that going from level 1 to 80 is a continual learning process. Over time, most of the things that are required for play (knowing what buttons to push, how to move out of fire, etc) go from being difficult to being automatic. In other words, we learn to play. For the most part, it seems as though most people are at least functionally able to operate the necessary buttons to do something reasonably resembling what they should be able to at level 80. Raiding, however, challenges the player at a higher level. If you’re unfamiliar with the term, raiding in WoW refers to 10 and 25 man groups attempting to defeat complex encounters with powerful game-controlled opponents. Game play offers many things to orient to: sounds are playing both when you do something, and when the creature you’re fighting does things, visual information about what abilities are available, where things to avoid  are (like that fire mentioned before…), and other information clutter the screen. As we discussed above, there are only so many cognitive resources available to go around. At a certain point, even those with the biggest resource pools are going to run out. When this happens, and cognitive overload occurs, we cannot process all the things we want to any more. This sounds like it would be disastrous for game play! Why would the game developers create situations in which we intentionally can no longer do everything they’re asking us to do? Some would say “if you can’t do it, you haven’t learned to play” and others might say “that is where the challenge is”. While there may be some truth to those statements, I think there is some interesting research that can shed some light on how we overcome the games’ information barrage.

One interesting finding in the research has been that Secondary Task Reaction Times (STRT) slow down as we become more and more cognitively loaded (as we have more and more of our cognitive resources devoted to processing information simultaneously). Then, at the point of cognitive overload, they suddenly become very fast again. This is thought to represent the process of trying to automatically allocate cognitive resources to processing the new information, finding that there are none, and then dropping old tasks for new ones (sort of like hitting the reset button). What we mean by “secondary task” here is easy to look at in terms of a simple WoW example. Imagine that you are a mage, continually casting the spell “arcane blast” as fast and frequently as you can. Suddenly, your screen indicates that the spell “arcane missiles” is now ready to cast. How quickly you push the button to cast arcane missiles would be your STRT. Now imagine that you’re also trying not to stand in fire (really guys, please stop standing in the fire), trying to remove curses from your friends, trying to watch how much threat you’re generating with the creature you’re fighting, etc. When all of those tasks are going on, you may be slower to react to arcane missiles becoming available.

Players deal with all of this information by customizing their user interfaces; by trying to use player-created user interface elements (commonly called mods, I will use the terms interchangeably) to display information in ways and places on the screen that make it more easily available and therefore take less cognitive effort to maintain. But at a certain point, user interfaces become cluttered, and are no longer effective.

So why do players clutter their interface? There are many anecdotal reasons to consider, but the typical response seems to be “because I need these mods to win, they’re required.” However, there is no universal standard to how many mods are required. I know of certain players who use many, and some who use only a few. Each of these players still gets the required information and is able to process the actions they need to take. A more theoretically driven reason comes to mind.

There is a common set of information that players must have, but beyond that, interface modding is a personal experience. There are certain actions players must pay more attention to than others. Up to a certain point, adding user interface elements causes a slowdown of our ability to react to new information that requires immediate action. After a certain point, we’ve established enough cognitive load that that arcane missiles button lighting up will cause us to dump the cognitive tasks we’re maintaining and devote a newly-freed-up chunk of resources to responding to this new call for action.

Here we can create a few hypotheses wherein we could investigate the relationship between the amount of interface elements that a player uses, and their effectiveness at responding to these calls for attention. Such as:

1.       As the number of interface elements calling for attention on the screen increases, player ability to respond to additional tasks will decrease until the point of cognitive overload, at which point they will speed up.

2.       The more user interface elements a player can pay attention to before causing cognitive overload, the larger their individual pool of cognitive resources must be.

To me, this is interesting for two reasons. First, as a player of these games, I find it fascinating that a group of us can come together and accomplish tasks successfully while all looking at very different interfaces. Second, from the theoretical standpoint, this could be a way to investigate the limits of human cognitive resource pools and the individual differences in them.

To make this leap we have to make a few blanket assumptions that might cause some issues with external validity. We have to assume that every player devotes the same amount of cognitive resources to processing each mod. We also have to assume that each mod requires the same amount of resources to process effectively. In other words, Decursive is as easy or difficult to process as Deadly Boss Mods is as Omen (threat meter) is. Finally, we need to assume that players use all the mods evenly throughout the whole fight. In other words, they’re constantly attending to each, not just using one here and there. The discussion here is also only looking at the player – side. Encounters themselves call for a differing amount of processing.

Are these assumptions too much? Do they invalidate the research? Is this research idea really a “further along” step in a chain of studies that must start with examining the impact of individual mods on cognitive overload? Perhaps – but these are the bits of thinking that lay ahead. For now, I’ll be happy with having the idea down and taking comments and questions on it.


UI Modification, Cognitive Overload and Game Play by Matt Falk, unless otherwise expressly stated, is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 3.0 Unported License.

2 Responses to “UI Modification, Cognitive Overload and Game Play”

  1. John says:

    You're never too old! I started playing WoW at 42. Still playing 5 years later. Are you guys still blogging? Looks like it hasn't been updated for a while.

  2. Meg Kaiama says:

    Useful information. Fortunate me I found your web site by accident, and I am shocked why this twist of fate did not happened in advance! I bookmarked it.


  1. 研究认知资源对玩家自创用户界面的影响 | GamerBoom.com 游戏邦 - [...] For now, I’ll be happy with having the idea down and taking comments and questions on it.(source:motivateplay) …

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