Your Brain On No Man’s Sky

Your Brain On Fun is a series that is all about why we are wired to find things interesting. Not all themes will be on gaming but No Man’s Sky is probably the most hyped release of 2016 and provides a great excuse to look at why humans are wired to explore and love survival simulations .

In 2013, people got their first glimpse of No Man’s Sky. With its incredible visual style, its impressive scale and promise of endless space exploration, people fell in love and it quickly became one of the the most anticipated games of 2016. What’s so interesting is how the game created such a buzz, excitement and inevitably crushing expectation before anyone knew exactly what it would turn out like.

After months of delay, its release was met with somewhat mixed reception. I could follow the buck and write about the inevitable consequence of over over-marketing and under delivering but instead we’ll focus on how the promise of uncompromised exploration created such excitement.

Is there more to No Man’s Sky than a pretty face?

So let’s talk exploration. Why do we do it? Why is it rooted in our genes? One evolutionary model suggests, we do explore to stand out. We are today the descendants of people who survived by outperforming others and exploiting the best resources. Exploration led our ancestors to discover fire and a couple of 2001 Space Odyssey monoliths later we’re zipping around the Atlantic, trying to find India and accidentally colonizing Brazil instead (don’t you hate when that happens?).

The phycological spur often held responsible for NASA’s exorbitant budget is curiosity (or as neurologists like to call it novelty-seeking behavior). Scientist seem to have a hard time pinpointing what curiosity is exactly. The general consensus is that “seeking” behavior motivates us to maximize “information gain”. In other words, the brain is wired to try new things and take actions that lead to learning something new which could open up new opportunities for survival in the future.

For instance, let’s say you visit Tamoko’s house - he’s a well-acquainted and reliable spirit friend - so you know you’re going to have a good time. Taking the most familiar path or what you often think is the best path can be referred to as the path of “exploitation” because you are exploiting and reinforcing your knowledge. However, studies show we are wired to expand our sphere of knowledge by taking risks and actively pursue new experiences (like attending Tamoko’s cousin - Timaka’s house party).

Obviously the situation is circumstantial but some studies suggest that in the great debate of treading new ground rather than the familiar (exploration vs. exploitive), often adopting the state of mind of The Very Hungry Caterpillar is the better strategy. When exploring, we often get the best of both worlds: The anticipatory excitement of seeking new rewards and the fulfillment of consuming them. When we show a readiness to explore and capitalize on opportunities, neural activity shows we put ourselves in a high energy (and often enjoyable) state as we prepare ourselves for action. Even when everybody in the house party inevitably ignores you because you’re wearing the wrong shoes, pleasure centers light up before our first move. Research also shows that not all rewards are equal in releasing dopamine from the striatum. We see dopamine produced and released at a greater rate when we approach something that elicits more of our curiosity — something that’s novel, uncertain, or a just-manageable challenge. When the activity is personally meaningful or important to us, there is even greater activation in the striatum and a greater cascade of delicious dopamine.

There is some great research on the neural mechanisms underlying all this. Particularly with perceptual curiosity: the curiosity we feel when we can’t see something clearly but want to know what it is. When volunteers were shown a blurred image in an fMRI the anterior insular and anterior cingular cortex (ACC) lit up, these are regions associated with arousal before a fight or spotting a potential mate. When the image is unblurred, regions of the striatum are activated, these are regions related to reward processing. The relief of perceptual curiosity is also associated with hippocampal activation and enhanced incidental memory.

JFK’s speech writers went for a more “we choose to go to the moon because it’s there” approach but I think the space program speaks abundantly to our sense of human curiosity, of wonder and awe at the unknown and it also addresses our need to build monuments and secure resources for future generations. Thanks to our innate tendency to try new things, we’ve sent nearly everything up into the heavens from chimpanzees to Matthew McConaughey and the Russians did the same thing but with more dog.

No Man Sky also features the notorious Sassy-saurus Rex.

In its final form, exploring the No Man Sky universe felt like stepping foot on 18 quintillion variants of the same monotonous lump of rock in different colours. But, it’s easy to see why people got excited by the idea of the game. No Man’s Sky promised to be the ultimate “you see that mountain? You can go there” game, a procedurally generated universe of near-infinite scope, all explorable from pole to pole. While No Man Sky plays like a missed opportunity, other games are on the horizon to feed the curious cat located somewhere near the subcortical part of your forebrain and let you venture where no man has gone before.