A short while ago, playing the dogfight-focused Coral Sea map of Battlefield 1943, I shot down 16 enemy planes in a row and ended the round without suffering a single death.  Though I've played a lot of FPSes, I am not accustomed to such results–far from it.  I've gotten used to watching my aging shooter skills slowly slide down the wrong side of the bell curve, and this particular outcome was so unprecedented that I considered retiring from the game on the high note.

But, as I reflected, I realized that compared to other shooters, the Battlefield games' core mechanics specifically play to the strengths–and the failings–of the brains of older gamers. Whether intentionally or as a by-product of these design choices, it means that the series is poised to have the long-term advantage over its competition as the average age of gamers increases, and their minds, like mine, continue to geriatrify.



If You Can Dodge a Wrench…

Not too long ago, in head-to-head firefights I started becoming consciously aware of moments where I had barely enough time to see a fleeting silhouette and register "bad guy with gun: I really ought to shoot hi–" before my avatar crumpled to the ground. Because of this, I envision that there will eventually be a time where I don't ever see the guys with guns, and my playtime becomes nothing but an endless string of death animations (and, at that point, I will retire).

The throwaway explanation is that my reflexes were starting to dull like an old golf pencil.  But what is often referred to as the single concept of "reflexes" is actually the end result of a combination of biological and neurological processes working together.  A degradation of some of these processes will have a more pronounced effect than others on our "twitch" skills.   But Battlefield's design–including larger environments and slower-to-develop encounters–minimizes the impact of this degradation, and in some cases, actually takes advantage of processes that older brains can do better.

The first component of hand-eye coordination is vision, and the first rule of vision is that seeing takes place in the brain, not in the eyes.  In fact, a lot of the time the brain sees what it expects to see, not what is actually there.   The most obvious example of this is the literal blind spot— the part of the retina where the optic nerve connects, which has no light-sensing cells. 

We don't notice that we have a blind spot because our brain fills it in with an approximation of the input that it thinks is missing.  Instead of a black circle in our vision, the brain seamlessly photoshops in a little bit of the background in real time. But, importantly, if something is in our field of view but falling in a blind spot, not only do we not see it, we believe that there is nothing to see. (Over time, other parts of retina may also become physically damaged and create additional blind spots, which can be a danger for older drivers, as cars and pedestrians can simply seem to appear; one bit of good news is evidence that playing games actually improves contrast sensitivity and motion tracking, some of the first elements of vision to fade with age.)

Another element that affects reacting quickly to visual input, and one that is probably more relevant to videogame skills, is so called "inattentional blindness."  In a nutshell, this means that when the brain is occupied with a high-concentration task, it sometimes does not even register other stimuli, even things that would otherwise be obvious or shocking.  (You can see an example here.)

Finally, much of what we think of as our ability to "act fast" is actually not really about quick reaction to  a unique situation, but rather about quick recognition of how to deal with a familiar situation. Psychologists use the term heuristics to refer to this kind of unconscious decisionmaking, and it means that as our experience with a similar situation grows, we don't orchestrate our response as a series of discrete tasks, but instead start to comprehend the "whole state" at once.

It's what chess players mean when they talk about "seeing the board," but a more commonplace example is thinking back on the way it felt to learn to drive.  At the time, choreographing the negotiation of traffic patterns and red arrows and lane markers outside of the car with the complex series of control inputs inside took all of your concentration, was exhausting, and probably gave at least one other driver a case of PTSD.  Now, you'd probably think nothing of making the same drive while juggling a cell phone, a value meal, and, if you're lucky, one or more lovely companions. 

In effect, once you're an experienced driver, your brain can run along on autopilot until some unusual event–a swerving maniac, a giant donut rolling through traffic–kicks it back into high-processing mode, where time seems to slow down, giving you plenty of time to react (this is an illusion: you're not actually see things in slow motion; you're just paying more attention).  And the amount of attention your brain can providein any particular situation also depends on experience.  A pro race driver deals with swerving maniacs all day long, and when he encounters one, he effectively has a surplus of attention to address the situation.   He's not just reacting, he's reacting with purpose. Whereas my brain might get only as far as processing "can I avoid hitting him?,"  an experienced driver might ask  "can I avoid hitting him and not lose my position?" And a really experienced driver might have time to consider "can I avoid him and turn his mistake to my advantage?"


Prepping for a Long Tour of Duty:

All of this is background for the ways that Battlefield, compared to its nearest rivals (i.e. Call of Duty), makes a number of design choices that diminish the effects of reflex and emphasize the effects of recognition and experience–and plays better with old brains as a result.

The first factor is the large size of the environments.  Even in both games' infantry-on-infantry gametypes, Call of Duty's smaller maps tends to have engagements that come at a faster pace in closer quarters and frequently result in face-to-face gunfights where both players see each other nearly simultaneously and race to line up their crosshairs first.  In these situations, a tenth of a second difference in players' response times might well determine the victor.

In Battlefield, especially in "Conquest" gametypes where players descend on multiple objectives from various directions, one player will often see another at a range too far away to effectively target but will also remain unspotted himself, so the engagement becomes one of slow positioning rather than speedy aim.   That first player might have to, for instance, creep from building to building to allow him to flank an unaware sniper–and because the maps are large, it's less likely that the carefully flanking player will be gunned down en route.   Because Battlefield stretches out these infantry encounters from fractions of a second into several seconds or more, either player's immediate reaction time represents a much smaller portion of the encounter and, consequently, confers less of an advantage.

Even more notable are the effects of vehicles on players' interactions.   First of these is the fact that the addition of vehicles, in and of itself, allows a multitude of new play scenarios to arise.  Faced with the rumbling of a tank in the distance, a player has a few precious seconds to plan their response.  Do they hide until it passes?  Make an exposed dash across the road to lay mines?  Try to move into position for a rocket strike?  Run toward a tank of their own? The more strategies and situations that are possible, the more important that experience and attention (as opposed to simple reflex) become to applying the right response to the right circumstance.  Again, it's a heuristics problem, but in this case a player must be a mix of both the chess master and the race driver–both understanding the whole problem quickly and still giving themselves enough time to act. 

The vehicles themselves, with their limited movement and slow responsiveness, are also a physical manifestation of Battlefield's design emphasis of demanding well-considered responses to particular situations.  The World War II era aircraft of BF1943 are a prime example of this.  Because the planes' cannons are always pointed in their direction of travel, the only way to "win" an engagement is for a pilot to end up in a position where they can hit the other pilot but can't be hit themselves. 

When two players square off, they must immediately take into account the other player's position, trajectory, and likely strategy, and then determine the right controller inputs to plot an intercept course.  These decisions are made over a second or two, but this is still much more slowly than in a quick-draw infantry duel.  And even though the decision happens relatively quickly, the execution takes time and can't easily be corrected.  If you've made an initial mistake in your response–turned too sharply or two quickly–you'll generally overshoot your target or end up a target yourself.  

So, once again, the mechanics of the vehicle combat take each engagement and stretch it out, making reflexes less of a determining factor than experience in determining the right course of action, a skill that can actually improve with age (after all, John Glenn flew to space at 77).  

Of course, these thoughts are all drawn from my experience on the Battlefields of the past. I played the Battlefield 3 beta on Xbox 360 (which did not include any of the larger maps) and it's possible that this latest game could entirely change the series' philosophy and feel.  

I hope not, though.  My mind, quite literally, may not be able to take it.