Fear, Love, and the Ineffable Appeal of a Great Game: A Conversation With Nick Bentley

Neurobiologist-turned-game designer Nick Bentley

Neurobiologist-turned-game designer Nick Bentley

This week's Question of the Day host is Nick Bentley, cofounder of Move38, an innovative company that creates electronic, interactive board games. 

What are the essential qualities for a great game?

This one's tough because different types of games are designed for different effects: a party game should help you laugh and/or feel close to others, where a strategy game should create a labyrinth of thought for you get lost in.

One of the fascinating things about designing games is you can do everything "right" in designing and still end up with a dud. Great games have a magic-fairy-dust aspect, something ineffable, which animates them ways hard to explain from their rules. I think this means there are significant aspects of human psychology we still don't understand, as they relate to games. But as long as that's true, it's hard to say that any particular qualities are essential. There are certain games that ignore everything that seems important to me about games and they're still great. 

"Great games have a magic-fairy-dust aspect, something ineffable..." [Tweet this]

Great games have a magic-fairy dust aspect...yes! I love that. You can't predict what's going to create great chemistry, or force it.  So what's your favorite game? What do you love about it?

Since I've referenced both party games and strategy games, I'll list my favorite of each kind. My favorite strategy game is called Slither. It's a deep, luckless, themeless game for two players played with components from another game, the ancient game of Go. I find trying perceive the state of the board and to project future moves to be an almost hallucinatory experience - powerfully visual.

My favorite party game is one I designed, called Stinker, which I designed for my wife (Stinker is an anagram of her name: Kristen). The story of its design is really a love story. It's a game where each player has a jumble of letter tiles and they have to answer silly questions (like: "What's under the Pope's hat?") by arranging their letters into answers. Because you never have exactly the letters you want, you end up accidentally creating weirdo answers that tend to be funny. The resulting humor is Monty Python-esque (you can see examples of answers I've seen in games here).

One criticism that has been lobbed at certain dating sites is their tendency to "gamify" dating; making it more about swiping or collecting than connecting. Do you think this tendency is inherently bad? What would the ideal dating app look like, from your perspective? 

I think most attempts at gamification are wrongheaded, in dating and elsewhere. As Ian Bogost says:

For better or worse, designers have borrowed lessons from games for product and service design. Unfortunately, the features they tend to choose are either the least interesting aspects of games (points, levels, rewards, and other incidental measures of progress) or else they’re the most insidious (partial reinforcement and other models of behavioral economics).
In truth, the most useful lesson to take away from games doesn’t have much to do with games at all. It’s just easier to see the lesson inside of games than outside them.
That lesson is that things are most compelling when they are allowed to be exactly what they are. And they’re even more compelling the more they are exactly what they are. That means that the designer’s job is to make things even more what they already are.

One thing that frustrates me about most dating apps is they seemed designed to create distance between people when the goal must somehow be fundamentally to create openness and intimacy. The gamification stuff seems to exacerbate this disconnect. 

"Most dating apps seem designed to create distance, when the goal must be openness and intimacy." [Tweet this]

The modern dating app sells itself as a portal to your happiness, but I think the big breakthrough will be when it figures out how to be a portal through which to contribute to the happiness of others. The best dating apps are the ones that take the focus away from evaluating others for personal gain and puts it on shared, fulfilling experiences. That feels more right to me.

Likewise, I've always wanted an app which does the following: I input the three things about which I'm most passionate, and whenever anyone within 50 feet of me shares one of those passions, the app tells me and guides me to them so we can strike up a conversation. It wouldn't be a dating app per se, but I bet it would create a lot of connections for people, some of them sexytime connections.      

Aside from shared passions, what do you look for in a relationship, or potential relationship?

I think I've learned not to look for specific things, nor put direct effort into trying to date. Never worked for me. Instead I've had success working on myself (physically and mentally) and trying to cultivate a healthy social life in general. I know this is frustratingly indirect but it's the only thing that's ever worked me. I didn't meet my wife while I was specifically looking for anyone. She said hello one day while I was waiting for take-out and I was gone. But that wouldn't have happened if I weren't in a good place at the moment we met. 

As with games, I think people are defined more by their "fairy dust" than by any list of qualities one could muster. If someone does it for you, that's the important bit. Your subconscious+body knows what it's looking for better than your conscious mind does (though I do let my conscious mind intervene on very basic practical matters: I probably wouldn't date someone with a serious meth addiction even if we connected totally, out of self-preservation).

Also: there's a famous study suggesting that if two people gaze into each other's eyes long enough (even two randomly chosen people in an experimental setting), there's a surprisingly high chance they'll fall for each other as a result. This suggests that there are many people we could fall for if we give them the right kind of chance. So it's important to give others lots of real, in-the-flesh chances. The act of really LOOKING at someone, with your whole heart, is pretty powerful. This circles back to your question about dating apps, many of which effectively discourage that kind of openness by encouraging trait-based pickiness, and also avoiding meatspace.  

"The act of really LOOKING at someone, with your whole heart, is pretty powerful." [Tweet this] 

Thinking about this, if I were to ever date again, I would like an app where going out on real, physical dates was somehow compulsory. There are a lot of problems that would have to be solved to make that happen, no doubt.  

I read a blog post where you argue that imaginative play is important for us to feel healthy and creative, but that fear can be a hindrance to playful exploration. As a result, so many things that are associated with frivolous play, from improv classes to Burning Man, tend to be dominated by privileged people. In reading that, I immediately started thinking about how startup culture is so dominated by white men, because these are the people who can "afford" to spend time pursuing their dreams. 

As a person pursuing your dream job in tech, do you have any ideas as to how to help stem that cultural tide? Do you think a different attitude toward "play" could help build the utopian society of the future?

I'm one of those white men. I've had so many breaks in life I'm embarrassed about it. I've occasionally actively sabotaged myself and STILL come up roses, because someone gave me some undeserved break. Sometimes I feel like I'm in one of those stories where someone makes a deal with the devil, lives it up for a while, and then the check comes due. Part of me is waiting for that check. That thought helps keep me on the straight and narrow and trying not to lean on my privilege as much as I probably could.

But to your question: I suggest in my essay that fear is the main hindrance to play. Fear is the thing. I wonder what governance would look like if legislators prioritized helping people feel less fear. I'm interested in the concept of the Universal Basic Income because I think it might help free people from fear, and thereby unlock creative potential.

I also wish meditation could somehow become a broad societal norm. I used to be a neurobiologist, and seeing the EEGs of longtime meditators left me a believer. People really can train themselves to feel love and not feel fear, to a stunning degree. If I were education czar I would absolutely make meditation a required and significant part of every public school student's day.

"People really can train themselves to feel love and not feel fear, to a stunning degree." [Tweet this]

Thank you so much for talking with us, Nick. I'm inspired to go meditate now! :)

Follow Move38 on Twitter & download Siren 5.3.0 for iPhone/iPad or Android now to read and respond to Nick's questions.