Thursday, October 1, 2009

John Boyd's OODA loop and games

The late John Boyd was a colorful and brilliant Colonel in the USAF whose work on military strategy included developing the concept of the OODA loop. OODA stands for observe, orient, decide, and act. The OODA loop originally described the behavioral process of military entities but has since been more widely applied. Its sequence of steps must be repeated to account for changing conditions, thus the loop.

There are a couple of ways the OODA loop applies to games.

The first, obviously, is artificial intelligence (AI) as used in games, since it can be argued that the OODA loop describes the way any intelligent entity functions, whether real or artificial. Of course AI in games is still terrible; in OODA terms the current AIs don't orient or decide well.

But the second, and most important, application of the OODA loop to games is to describe what's going on inside the head of the player.

Note the difference between playing a game and passively consuming content. When someone reads a book, or watches sports or a movie, the loop involves just observing and orienting, that is, watching the events unfold and fitting them into the ongoing narrative. Passive consumption of content involves just an OO loop.

In contrast, playing a game invokes the full OODA loop. The deciding and acting steps nicely describe the activities involved in play—think about how children play with toys.

The word flow has been used to describe the state when one is absorbed in a game in a satisfying way. That flow is the smooth functioning of the player's OODA loop, particularly the deciding and acting steps.

What happens when a player's OODA loop can't keep up with events? In some cases they end up becoming overwhelmed to the point of watching helplessly. Examples are found in action games like Tetris when the speed increases past the point where the player can keep up, or RTS games when facing a much stronger opponent. Many players are familiar with the feeling of their OODA loop becoming overwhelmed.

When a player's OODA loop becomes overwhelmed in the face of a superior opponent it's no fault of the game design. Nor is there a design fault in games which speed up and eventually overwhelm a player's OODA loop. But there are several ways that poor game design can break a player's OODA loop and thus cut off the feeling of flow.

I'll have more on how games can break a player's OODA loop, with specific examples, in another post.

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