May 18th 2004

From The Tipping Point

by Malcolm Gladwell

While examining the details of what makes a piece of communication effective, Gladwell describes a famous piece of scientific analysis.

The pioneer of this kind of analysis – of what is called cultural microrhythms – is a man named William Condon. In one of his most famous research projects in the 1960’s he attempted to decode a four-and-a-half-second segment of film, in which a woman says to a man and a child, over dinner: “You all should come around every night. We never have had dinnertime like this in months.” Condon broke the film into individual frames, each representing about 1/45th of a second. Then he watched – and watched. As he describes it:

‘To carefully study the organization and sequence of this, the approach must be naturalistic or ethological. You just sit and look and look for thousands of hours until the order in the material begins to emerge. It’s like sculpturing…Continued study reveals further order. When I was looking at this film over and over again, I had an erroneous view of the universe that communication takes place between people. Somehow this was the model. You send the message, somebody sends the message back. The messages go here there and everywhere. But something was funny about this.’

Condon spent a year and a half on that sort segment of film, until, finally, in his peripheral vision, he saw what he always sensed was there:

Now I’m a pretty analytical and anal fellow, but that description of Condon’s research is shockingly detailed, even to me. But when you think about his actions in the context of the rest of science, it doesn’t seem that odd. Much of our understanding of the world comes from the analysis of elements that are very small in relation to the system being analysed. The structure of atoms helps explain the more complex phenomena in chemistry, the behavior of cells biology, and the detail of sub-atomic particles and forces physics.

So what’s wrong with applying the tool of micro-analysis to other fields? It’s turns out that there’s nothing wrong with it at all. fields on the borderline of science have been busy adopting microscopic analysis for many years. An example would be in the subset of linguistics known as ‘Phonetics’ or the science of speech sounds. Central to the study of Phonetics is the element known as a ‘Phoneme’. The use of the microscopic phoneme elements really helps Phoneticians (like my girlfriend) understand how the vast complex stream of speech is structured, because it subdivides complex sequences of sound that happen too fast to consciously hear, into discrete units that can be logged and examined.

Condon’s microrhythms research is an example of microscopic analysis applied to social interaction, and I think this type of analysis has a place in the development and understanding of videogames. The content in a game is thrown at a player in a manner that is too fast for us to comprehend. Like the dense clusters of phonemes in speech, the television, speakers and rumble motor output from videogames sends out vast streams of information which we are unable to process in detail. Without realising it, as gamers we are bombarded with thousands of atomic particles of ‘gameplay’ every minute we sit and play.

What really needs to happen is for someone to do what William Condon did with human interaction – take a short sequence of gameplay, and painstakingly divide it up into constituent atoms, applying the Phonetic rule that the atoms should be the smallest possible size while still being meaningful in the context of the analysis.

As it turns out someone has done what Condon did with human interaction (without being aware of his work, I hasted to add). That person is me, and you’ll be able to read about my analysis and method at some point later this year…

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