Attack Its Weak Point for Massive Damage: Guiding Attention in Virtual Environments

Article, Shan Lakhmani No Comments

Shan Lakhmani | December 11, 2012

I have been conditioned, over the course of many years of playing video games, to attack giant beasts when they are flipped over, to stab glowing sigils, and to toss eggs into fanged maws. While this may make me an unpopular guest at dinner parties, it makes me really good at fighting bosses in video games. Game designers, and designers of virtual environments in general, use certain clues to get you to look at certain things at certain times. But, how is this effective? Why do we look at certain things in virtual environments, and not others? To understand why we look at certain items and not others, we must first understand why we process anything.

Sluggy the Unshaven

Image from Super Mario World 2: Yoshi’s Island courtesy of Freakin’ Awesome Network

In Wickens’ Information Processing Theory Model, attention is conceptualized as a filtering process [7]. According to this model, you are bombarded by stimuli from the environment during every hour of every day [1]. If the stimuli are within the range of human perception, then this information is translated into electro-chemical neural activity [1].  Some of these sensations are important, but most of them are not. Human Attention is the resource used to process and constrain this incoming information [7].

Wickens Information Processing Model

Model of Human Information Processing adapted from Wickens, 1992. The figure is courtesy of Kiencke, Majjad, & Kramer, 1999

Once the information has been processed, one can use information from the past to color that information, store that memory for either the short-term or the long-term, or choose an appropriate response to that information and then act on it [1]. All these processes, however, require attention.  We are particularly interested in why we process, and subsequently perceive, some pieces of information in the environment and not others. How can we promote some stimuli over others in the environment?

Virtual environments are specifically designed to try and get you pay attention to certain stimuli. When shopping online, proprietors want customers to look at their products, and subsequently buy them. In instructional environments, teachers want students to look at information relevant to the learning task. When doing online research, you are looking for specific pieces of information in a sea of irrelevant noise. In these kinds of environments, attention can either be an action or a reaction. If attention is a conscious action, this is known as Endogenous Cueing of attention [1].  If attention is a reaction to the environment, this is known as Exogenous Cueing of attention [1].

Endogenous cueing of attention is a top-down process [6]. This means that you know, specifically, what you are looking for. A spotlight is a good metaphor for endogenous cueing of attention. Rather than seeing the entire screen, you focus on one particular aspect of the screen, in an attempt to find something. Adventure games tend to feature endogenous cueing fairly heavily [6].

Sam and Max Episode 101: Culture Shock

I spent 15 minutes searching for a scrap of paper in Sam and Max: Culture Shock. Screenshot courtesy of Telltale Games

Exogenous cues are more stimulus driven. Exogenous cuing of attention occurs when there is something about the environment itself that draws attention [1].  In virtual environments, certain image properties, such as high contrast, noticeable edges, or unique color can be used to draw the eye [2]. Other characteristics that guide attention towards certain areas of the visual field include position of the item, motion, size, and novelty [5]. If you think back to the internet of the 1990s, you’ll realize that people were well aware of these exogenous cues, but not aware of how to use them well.

Homer's Webpage from The Simpson's episode, The Computer Wore Menace Shoes

An example of exogenous cues from The Simpsons episode “The Computer Wore Menace Shoes.”

The best designed virtual environments, be they games, websites, or whatever else, use exogenous cues to help people find what they are seeking. One feature that is particular popular in aiding learning in synthetic learning environments is “signaling” [4]. Students are given visual information, but given their lack of experience, they do not know what information is important and in what order it should be processed [3]. To aid in this process, instructors can use “Signals” to direct students’ attention to important information, via these exogenous cues. While students search for the information needed to continue the task, the important variables can flash or the relevant plane on a graph can be highlighted using a different color, which helps the student find what they seek. Shadow of the Colossus actually features an interesting kind of signaling. Bosses can have a number of weak points, which are signified by glowing sigils. Players move from one smaller sigil, which is a different color than the background and slowly pulses with light, to other, larger sigils. This feature allows users to follow a path set out by the game’s designers and accomplish their goals, without making players feel like they are just running along a corridor set up for them.

Quadratus, from Shadow of the Colossus

Quadratus, from Shadow of the Colossus. The glowing sigil acts as a signal, pointing players to where their attacks will be most effective. Image courtesy of the TeamICO Wiki

In the end, remember that you and your users are working together to accomplish a goal. Store owners and customers are working together to help customers find something to purchase. Instructors are working with students so that the students can learn the material. Through mindful design, one can use exogenous attentional cues to help your users accomplish the goals that you both want to accomplish.


1. Jerome, C. (2007). Orienting of visual-spatial attention with augmented reality: Effects of spatial and non-spatial multi-modal cues. Dissertation Abstracts International, 67.

2. Karacan, H. U., Cagiltay, K., & Tekman, H. G. (2010). Change detection in desktop virtual environments: An eye-tracking study. Computers in Human Behavior26(6), 1305-1313.

3. Lee, Y. J. (2010). Effects of Instructional Preparation Strategies on Problem Solving in a Web-Based Learning Environment. Journal of Educational Computing Research, 42(4), 385–406.

4. Moreno, R., Reislein, M., & Ozogul, G. (2010). Using Virtual Peers to Guide Visual Attention During Learning. Journal of Media Psychology: Theories, Methods, and Applications, 22, 52-60.

5. Pravettoni, G., Leotta, S. N., & Lucchiari, C. (2008). The eye caught in the Net: A study on attention and motivation in virtual environment exploration. European journal of cognitive psychology20(5), 955-966.

6. Sundstedt, V., Stavrakis, E., Wimmer, M., & Reinhard, E. (2008). A psychophysical study of fixation behavior in a computer game. In Proceedings of the 5th symposium on Applied perception in graphics and visualization (pp. 43-50). New York: ACM.

7. Wickens, C. D., & Carswell, C. M. (1997). Information processing. Handbook of human factors and ergonomics2, 89-122.

No Responses to “Attack Its Weak Point for Massive Damage: Guiding Attention in Virtual Environments”

Leave a Reply

6 − two =