You start playing an old-school 2D video game. Your character begins on the left side of the screen, with a lot of empty space to the right, and maybe an obstacle in the way. This empty space encourages you to move right; after a moment, the screen scrolls with you, encouraging you to keep going. You understand now that you’re meant to travel from left to right, and on a general level, from closed space to open space. The game designer initiates a conversation with you, telling you what must be done to proceed. As you proceed, the conversation continues and you learn more about what’s expected of you.
You are reading a story, and the author uses short, clipped sentences. Instead of knocking at a door, somebody raps at it. Instead of the character saying, “Hey, how’s it going?” they tersely say, “hi.” Rather than using long, flowing sentences, the author sticks to short ones with basic descriptors. For actions, she uses ones that imply speed and tension. This helps you recognize that the situation is tense, that actions are being performed choppily or under stress, and gives you the feeling that the environment may be uncomfortable for the characters. With a few different words, it might feel businesslike; scientific words might sound clinical and detached, whereas neutral, basic words might just feel emotionless and flat.
You are playing a fighting game against an opponent, and you want him to stop blocking so you can open him up for a combo. So rather than using a perfect block string, you use a frame trap instead. You suggest to your opponent that he has time to act, only to hit him in the start-up of his escape move. Or you convince him that you will be blocking with the tiniest hint of a backward motion before you input a special move and hit him when he tries to turn the offense around.
Each of these cases involves using subtle (and maybe not-subtle) cues to put ideas into somebody’s head. When done properly, they don’t even notice they’re being told anything, or guided, or instructed to behave and feel a certain way. They just get an impression. In visual fields it’s done with shape, form, color, and empty spaces. In written forms, it’s done with timing, sentence length, different emotional associations with words, shifting punctuation, using sentence fragments or compound sentences to change how you feel. A video game can use reward and success to condition you to behave one way or expect something, then change the required behavior or cue to trick you. You can have an empty screen to the right with the character at the left, only to scroll the screen and have a secret to the left. Such a secret might then tell you, “look in unexpected places,” and plant the idea that the game is filled with secrets for you to find.
In writing, people often say “show, don’t tell.” Don’t tell me a man is disgusting, give me disgusting details so that I feel disgusted by him. Show me grimy fingernails and decaying teeth and lazy eyes and frayed hair discolored by dirt and time. Or be even more subtle, and prime me for his disgusting tendencies by using words I associate with disgust before he shows up. Keep going; don’t just give me details that he’s slovenly, alter the sentence structure associated with him so I get a feeling of disorder, that he doesn’t have it together. Don’t tell me the idea, don’t show it to me, plant the idea in me and let it grow. Even better, let me feel like it just magically happened, and it will be more powerful because I generated it internally. Or don't, if you're not a writer. Your call.
Any time you attempt to plant an idea, feeling, or cue for future behavior, you’re depending heavily on the mindset, expectations, and thought process of the other person. Just like planting a seed, you hope the place you plant it will nourish it and give you the result you want. You also hope you’re planting a seed and not a dead twig, and the mind will be able to do something with it at all. Hopefully the other person is receptive, and hopefully your cue makes sense to begin with.
Certain plants and cues will rely on the other person being savvy and aware. Sometimes they rely on the person being ignorant. Going back to a gaming example, if you start a veteran player at the left side of the screen with a bunch of empty space to the right, he will understand what you’re saying. Then, based on previous knowledge, he may think “and that’s why a secret may be hidden to the left, because secrets are often placed in spots that seem to be dead ends,” and he will try to move left. Then he will find your secret, and feel satisfied.
Or he will find a note that says, “No secrets here! Go right, you fool,” and feel something else altogether. He will know that the game designer knows he’s a veteran, and that he needs to be extra wary because the designer is savvy. A hidden conversation, a meta-discourse begins. The veteran knows he can trust his instincts and experience to tell him something, but whether it will be rewarded, punished, or mocked remains to be seen. This might reintroduce a sense of novelty, or paranoia, or both. It might be a nod of the head to make him feel like he’s in on a joke with the designer, or it might be a punishment to say “you’re not as clever as you think you are.”
And note that all this might be lost on a newer crowd. They might never notice, or they might be confused by the details. They might not understand why this conversation is even taking place at all. It’s something that happens when art or music is made for critics and aficionados, rather than the more casual crowd. This is why the advice given to every creator, whether an artist or a comedian or a chef or a software designer is “know your audience.” This is also why something will stand out as amazing, life-changing art for one person, and another person will wonder what the deal is. Whether it’s lack of experience, or just not being the target audience, or just not being in a certain frame of mind, they won’t pick up on the conversation. Perhaps the conversation was poorly started by the artist. It could be any number of things.
It applies to the competitor as well. There isn’t much point to using feints and distractions against somebody who is only interested in taking swings at you without paying any attention to what you’re doing. It’s also hard to fake out somebody who is paying attention to cues you aren’t aware you’re giving. In the first case, you get blindsided by what seems like random behavior. In the second case, the other person views you with the air of somebody watching a cheesy Saturday morning cartoon, with obvious and shallow attempts at twists and jokes and emotion-raising. They can see what’s really behind your behaviors, they think that you’re as predictable as you think you’re clever. You must know your audience if you want to plant notions in their heads, and you must give them the cues they’re looking for.
When a new player is dropped into a game and they see empty space to the right, they might ignore it and just mash buttons. They may ignore the cues and try moving left anyhow, because they don’t know the designer was telling them “see this open space? That’s how you get to the rest of the game!” So they get confused until trial and error teaches them better. Depending on how curious the user is, they may connect the most flimsy clues, or ignore the most obvious hints.
So it’s up to you, if you’re competing head-to-head or creating an experience for somebody, to consider what cues you send. As you become more skilled, develop more finesse, and want to achieve new effects, the plants may become subtler. The same is true if you’re experiencing a piece of art or a game or the mind-games of an opponent. Hone a sense of curiosity, expectation, and analysis, and you may see yourself influenced by surprising things.
Thanks for reading. See you next week!