Cognitive Load in Games

People’s brains can only hold so much information at any one time. This informational capacity is impacted by a low of factors including health, emotional state, hunger, stress and dehydration. Overload this, and people’s brains start to fry. Not physically, but in a confused grumpy kind of way.

Now this isn’t to say we should avoid having a high cognitive load in our games.  That would be silly.  Some people are attracted to solving puzzles and coming up with solutions or just love lore!  And some of the most popular tabletop games have entire books full of mechanics to remember (like Dungeons & Dragons).  What it does mean is to be mindful of the cognitive load requirements of your game and how they can impact on people.

There are a number of traits of information that can increase its cognitive load.  This include if it:

  • Includes time pressure.  Doing a Find-a-Word in a minute is harder than having an hour as you need to process more information at a faster pace.
  • Is new or unfamiliar.  We tend to rely on habits and preconceptions, where we can, and thus things that are unexpected stand out to us and require more processing power.
  • Includes a lot of mechanics or processes to remember, especially when those mechanics or processes affect each other in unique ways.
  • Can’t be easily referred to.  Obviously if you can put certain details on paper, such as by having an alchemy book next to the alchemy lab so folks can use the book as a memory aid, you can reduce cognitive load relating to that task significantly.  This is also why tabletop games can often be more complex than LARPs.
  • Is rarely practiced.  Habits and muscle memory can really help reduce cognitive load.
  • Is contradicted by other games.  Does the word “Vital Strike” mean something different in two of the games you play?  That’s going to cause confusion.

It can also help just to give people breaks in cognitive load.  A rule-set with heavy combat mechanics that are paced to occur in 5 – 20 minute battles with breaks in between will feel quite different than a game where you do it for 2 hours straight.  Having those breaks will help people rest and recover.

Chunk information into relevant groups.  One combat system has a “call system” that relies on folks adding Distance Call + Element Call + Effect Call.  For example you might have a “By My Voice Fire Damage!”  “By My Voice” means the same thing no matter whether it’s paired to Fire or Water or Electricity.  Players only need to know it in relation to “Touch” or “Point” mechanics.  Plus it’s fairly self-explanatory.  Do I have fire resistance?  No?  Than ouch!  This would be easier to understand than “Allusandra meduris!”

So how do you manage cognitive load in your games?  What about you players – how do you cope with it?

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