How Do You Create Apophenia?

What in the world is ‘apophenia’ and how can it create more irresistible experiences?

Apophenia/æpˈfniə/ is the human tendency to perceive meaningful patterns within random data.

Tynan Sylvester, author of Designing Games, notes that “This apophenia – this perception of personality and intent where there is none – is the key to making a simulation game work. We can’t simulate the emotional core of a good story on silicon. Computers just aren’t good at handling generalized intelligence, intent, and feeling. But we don’t have to simulate those things. We only need to show the simulation equivalent of moving balls and let the player layer in their own emotional perceptions.

In this way, the simulation is a co-author of stories with the player. The simulation does the logistics and generates some random outcomes, while the player adds the meaning and pathos.”

Which makes sense to me as a game designer. I remember a colleague at Maxis telling me of first meeting Will Wright and wanting to know how he had created The Sims. Will simply brought him into his office and showed him three spreadsheets running on his computer. Three spreadsheets? That’s right, all the rest was just implementation in code or art on the screen. The spreadsheets were the data at the heart of the simulation.

But wait…if that was the simulation, where was the “fun”? What made The Sims look and feel so human?

Well one reason is that the designers added ambiguity to the game model. The game is very clear about the eight stats that are tracked in the game (Hunger, Social, Fun, Comfort, Hygiene, Bladder, Room and Energy) as well as the in-game currency (Simoleans) and the architectural simulator. But most of the storylines in the game are created through emergent gameplay. And an important tool for generating that emergence is the ambiguity present in the game.

Gaver, et al. talk about three different types of ambiguity:

Ambiguity of Information

  • Use imprecise representations to emphasize uncertainty
  • Over interpret data to encourage speculation
  • Expose inconsistencies to create a space of interpretation
  • Cast doubt on sources to provoke independent assessment

Ambiguity of Context

  • Implicate incompatible contexts to disrupt preconceptions
  • Add incongruous functions to breach existing genres
  • Block expected functionality to comment on familiar products

Ambiguity of Relationship

  • Offer unaccustomed roles to encourage imagination
  • Point out things without explaining why
  • Introduce disturbing side effects to question responsibility

Other types of media, like TV, movies, books and graphic novels, can also utilize this ambiguity. But I would argue that the player agency inherent in most games allows for more of the apophenia that we know can lead to increased player engagement.

So, what does all of this mean for us who are not making games for games sake? Or even educational or health products, for example.

Let’s look at some ways to create apophenia from an article by Sylvester:

  • Borrow archetypes from real life and fiction
  • Allow players to project themselves into the game. (although this could be used for many simulations or experience)
  • Create uncertain situations with human-relevant values in the balance
  • Express or imply simple, pure, primal emotions

Think about the feelings you are trying to create in your product or experience. How can you use apophenia to create spaces in the minds of your users to fill in with their own stories?