We all are blind (more or less) — how to deal with it?

Short story about inattentional blindness that can affect the games we design

Illusions and delusions often appear in video games — both intentionally, to play with the player, and accidentally, when it results from ignorance. Or, from the other hand, sometimes players do not notice important, from the viewpoint of developers, information we want them to notice. Why is this happening? What is responsible for that? And how can we consciously use the knowledge about human perception to make our game design better?

Let’s start this article from a small test: watch a “basketball video” below. Do not read the article if you didn’t watch it, otherwise the effect will be broken.

If you undergo to the illusion of attention, which is very likely, you may want to learn more about it. Then I invite you to read this short text about how people look and how people see (or not).

Video you just watched is the most famous experiment among other experiments showing an interesting feature of human brain, which is called a “selective attention” or “inattentional blindness”. Experiment carried out by scientists Christopher Chabris and Daniel Simons revealed that people who are focused on one thing can easily overlook something else. Scientists asked the participants of the experiment to count all the passes between the players wearing white t-shirts. To the surprise of scientists, around half of the volunteers participating in the study did not notice a gorilla who was walking between basketball players. The gorilla only appeared for 9 seconds, but it should nevertheless be easily noticeable. However, people who have focused too much on counting did not notice the big black monkey between players. It shows that people often do not notice any changes around them, even the major ones.

Are you still not convinced? Just look at the next video showing the experiment carried out by Simons and his collaborator, Daniel Levin:

On this video an experimenter number 1 holds a map and asks a random passerby for directions. As the passerby explains directions, two people walks in between him and the passerby, holding a door. In this way the experimenter number 1 is replaced with the experimenter number 2, who looks different and has a different voice. Again, almost half of the passers-by did not notice that they were talking to a different person after the door passed.

In a book Invisible Gorilla Chabris and Simons write that when a person focuses on one particular area or the aspect of the visible world, he tends not to notice unexpected objects appearing, even when they are clearly visible, potentially significant and appear exactly in the place where one is just looking. In case of “gorilla experiment”:

failure to perceive the anomalies is attributed to failure to attend to it while engaged in the difficult task of counting passes of the ball. These results indicate that the relationship between what is in one’s visual field and perception is based much more on attention than was previously thought.

A busy mind eliminates visual stimuli in order to concentrate, which usually works in our favor, unless we’re just driving a car (in real life) — that’s why it’s so dangerous to talk on a cell phone while driving. Or (in the game) we fight with a big wave of enemies and we do not see signals that we should run in the opposite direction. Researchers concluded that short-term memory is responsible for the fact that some people have noticed a gorilla, while others have not. What’s more — subsequent video experiments with a gorilla and the use of a device tracking eye movements showed that all people watching the movie saw gorilla. Everyone’s eyes were on the gorilla, but only half of the people were aware of it. It turned out that if a person focuses on one thing and does not anticipate any changes, it is very likely that a person will not notice any changes.

When designing games, it is worth taking into account the fact that it will be played by people with different capacity of short-term memory, that defines how much we are able to focus on more than one thing at a time. If at an important moment, that requires focus, we want to draw the attention of the player to something else or we want to emphasize something, it is worth considering additional visual or audio instructions. It is also worth remembering that even if we show something on the screen, it does not mean that players will notice it (with awareness, not with their eyes).

At the end, take a look at the short film by the well-known author and psychologist Richard Wiseman (the film uses the same principle as in the experiment with the gorilla). If you are subject to the illusion of attention, which is very likely, it will be easier for you to understand the players for whom you design the game and it will be easier to predict situations in which the “inattentional blindness” phenomenon may occur. Enjoy!

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