Working Within Working Memory


When designing games, it’s easy to add complexity. You can always come up with yet another feature to add to a game. However, some of the best game designers would argue that their craft is all about taking things out of their games. Indeed, most games that stand the test of time have elegant rule sets. These games are easy to learn because they have few rules, but hard to master because of what’s known as emergent gameplay—complexity that arises from the interplay of relatively simple rules.

Uh, Could You Repeat That?

As one of the founders of the field of cognitive psychology, George Miller helped to define the limits of working memory. The term ‘working memory’ is similar to the more common term ‘short term memory.’ It describes the things we are remembering because we are currently thinking about them. In 1956, Miller published a paper showing that the average human can remember only 5-9 things at one time. Phrased another way, a person can hold 7 ± 2 objects in working memory.

This finding turned out to be extremely relevant to several fields, including game design. Miller’s research shows us that a participant in any game can only remember 7 ± 2 things about that game at one time. A good example is poker, a game where players typically have no more than seven cards in their hand at a time. Another classic example is chess, which has lots of strategic depth, but only six distinct types of pieces.


Professor Miller’s work was also behind the shift from mnemonic prefixes for phone numbers to the purely numeric system in use today. Our ability to remember seven digits in working memory justified dropping the mnemonics, which were causing an increasing number of misdials.

It’s Complicated

The advent of video games has helped to increase complexity and make it more desirable in game design. Because of their digital nature, these games impose no intrinsic limits on complexity. They can have many systems and subsystems that autonomously chug along, often without the player understanding them or even being aware of them.

This pursuit of complexity for its own sake presents a great pitfall for budding game designers. Knowing when to take things out of a game can require discipline and experience, but is a necessary step in the process.

But Try to Keep It Simple…

One potential solution is to start by designing a board game instead of a video game. This can be helpful because board games provide tangible indicators of their own complexity.

For example:

  • How many items am I asking my players to remember in their working memory?
  • How many game pieces (cards, dice, etc.) are needed to represent the current game state?
  • How many choices do players have at any given juncture?

All of these factors can increase cognitive load. In a board game, that load can encumber players. In a video game, it can frustrate players who are unable to understand how to play. In either instance, these players won’t stick around for long. The difference is that board games are cheaper and faster to prototype, making it easier to iterate on these problems.

Summing It All Up

So whether you’re trying to come up with a new game concept, or iterating on an existing one, it may be useful to look to board games for inspiration and validation. If it’s too complicated to work as a board game, it may be too complicated to work as a video game. But if you come up with a great board game mechanic, chances are it can be the basis for an equally great video game mechanic.

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