Gone Home and the Constraint of Genre
Curiosity and the Play of Explorer Games

Neuromythology for Game Design

Brain-as-circuits Is dopamine about reward? Is oxytocin the 'love drug'? How should game designers conceptualise neurobiology – should they even be paddling in this pool?

For quite a while now I've taken an interest in what neuroscientists can teach game designers. In the full knowledge that some of the things I convey will soon be invalidated, I have proceeded to dabble. But I am not a neurobiologist (or not yet, anyway) and many have advised me to leave it to those within the field. For me, this is the wrong way to relate to the sciences: experimental findings do not propagate by accurate description but by metaphors, what I have called (after Mary Midgley) 'myths'  – and neurobiologists are no more trained in practical mythology than game designers are in neuroscience. Tinkering with conceptual schemes and abstract theories is philosophy, but as with much that is philosophical it is not just philosophers who do it. If the choice of ‘myth’ as a term sounds inflammatory, it’s because we now have a tendency to think of myth as a synonym for ‘falsehood’, but this view conceals a highly mythic view on truth, one in definite need of critique.

What I'm calling the 'myths' of the sciences are related to what Kuhn called 'paradigms' and (more loosely) what Foucault called 'épistème', which is a culturally wider concept. Kuhn's paradigms are collections of beliefs and assumptions that make a particular kind of research possible, while the myths of the sciences are metaphorical shorthand intended to capture essential ideas. Mythologies are to paradigms what headlines are to events – the short version, with all the benefits and risks that entails. If you don't think of headlines as mythic or metaphorical, consider that 'Williams Smashes Record' does not involve any literal act of destruction, and that acts of recording are tangential to what we mean by a 'record' in sports.

Because of the role of metaphor in both myths and headlines, these abbreviated ideas have implications beyond what is intended. As I outline in The Mythology of Evolution, a myth like 'the selfish gene' not only serves to explicate a scientific concept (the gene-centric view in this case) it necessarily carries further baggage that is often unintended, or smuggled in as if it were empirically grounded. In the case of the myth of 'the selfish gene,' two examples are the assumption that our genetic history made us selfish (Dawkins is clear that the converse is the case) and the idea that our genes control us (which Dawkins deploys rhetorically, and misleadingly). These kinds of myths are thus never neutral conveyors of ideas but rather an aggregate of background assumptions that may or may not correspond to the research, with the power to both persuade and deceive. Researchers deploy these myths out of necessity – to communicate complex experimental results to the public, of course, but also to make their own discourse tractable. It is no use bemoaning mythology as unnecessary: on the contrary, there is no way of researching – indeed, of living! – without myths. The problem isn’t that we use myths, it’s that we aren’t sufficiently critical of the ones we do use.

In neurobiology, some myths are explanatory shorthand ('headline fodder') while others are conceptual tools. The idea that oxytocin is 'the love drug' is the former – it is rarely mentioned in the literature of this science, and mainly appears in news stories about this particular chemical. As with all such myths, it is both helpful and misleading, but its accessibility trumps all other concerns most of the time. The idea of dopamine as a reward chemical (which I have propagated on the back of its extensive use within the neuroscience community) is a great example of a conceptual tool. Thinking in this way links up dopamine's role in both motivation and learning in a succinct fashion, and until very recently this myth was part of the regular currency of neuroscientists. However, a few scant months after submitting my PhD Publication thesis (which used this myth) a paper was published by John Salamone and Mercè Correa which asked for a fundamental shift in the mythology of dopamine.

Salamone and Correa recognize the role of myths in the sciences but call them 'stories', which is a less inflammatory myth-about-myths that invites different kinds of misunderstandings. They propose that the myth of dopamine as reward has wandered too far from the evidence and needs to be retired. Their principle claims are firstly that 'reward' is too ambiguous a term that invites multiple readings and misreadings, and secondly that the reward mythology overlooks the role of dopamine in aversive behaviours that do not seem to make sense in the context of 'reward'. On the latter count, I largely support them – depending on how dopamine-as-reward is deployed, it will tend to gloss over its role in motivating avoidance. But on the former I am less keen to lend them my support. What I want to do here is defend dopamine-as-reward, not as superior to the newly emerging consensus myth, but as a still perfectly usable shorthand in certain contexts – including game design.

The new myth that Salamone and Correa support does not originate with them and has been gaining currency for a while now. Rather than mythologizing dopamine as reward, it talks about the chemical in terms of motivation. The argument goes that 'reward' implies pleasure, but that the evidence points to opioids as the underpinning of pleasure not dopamine. (Note that the nucleus accumbens is still a principal site of this pleasure effect, as per the old 'pleasure centre' mythology, but dopamine was the wrong neurotransmitter.) Thus dopamine-as-motivation, opioids-as-pleasure – or as Kent Berridge suggested from 1996 onwards, dopamine for wanting and opioids as liking. I like this myth a great deal – it captures a lot of contemporary neurobiological evidence very succinctly, and Salamone and Correa include this as one of a host of alternative sets of terms that have been fielded. Yet it is difficult to see this revised myth as a definitive replacement of its predecessor since the literature on dopamine has for some time been able to make use of their 'new' mythology of dopamine-as -motivation without having to give up the 'old' mythology of reward.

For example, in 2001 Steven Hyman and Robert Malenka recognised ‘rewarding’ as meaning ‘intrinsically positive’ but also draw attention to the distinction between ‘liking’ and ‘wanting’ (discussed below), in the context of work by Terry Robinson and Kent Berridge as early as 1993. They point out that the role of dopamine “is not simply to signal reward”, but they don’t back off from the dopamine-as-reward myth all the same. Similarly, Morten Kringelbach in 2005 associates the orbito-frontal cortex (which is closely tied to mesolimbic dopamine) with representing “the wanting and liking aspects of reward”, a position that straddles the old and new mythologies. Kringelbach also writes (with Berridge) in 2009 that reward can be decomposed into wanting, liking, and learning elements, linking the ‘wanting’ to mesolimbic dopamine and the ‘liking’ to forebrain opioids. Dopamine-as-reward has coexisted with dopamine-as-motivation for the last two decades, and as such Salamone and Correa’s proposal is not so much a paradigm shift as it is a cleaning house.

So should we abandon dopamine-as-reward and adopt 'wanting and liking' instead? Well that depends on what you're trying to discuss. Certainly, I see broad discussions in several fields taking on 'wanting and liking' as their guiding myth, and I will be experimenting with this conceptual framework in my work on play. But what this myth lacks that the reward myth had is a combination of motivation and learning, which is also mediated by dopamine (with the striatum coming into focus as a key site in the rather complex networks of the brain). Motivation does not imply learning, but reward actually does imply this. As Salamone and Correa suggest "the term reward has meaning as a synonym for 'reinforcer'" but "there is no consistent scientific meaning of 'reward' when used to describe a neurobiological process". They see this as a bad thing – among neuroscientists that might indeed be a decisive point. I don't think it's decisive for game designers, though, for whom the learning myth remains potent and very effective for thinking about certain kinds of design. I may have argued against this mythology at times, but only in pursuit of rhetorical diversity.

Because games, via the progress structures pioneered by Dungeons & Dragons, use B.F. Skinner's schedules of reinforcement as a key generator and maintainer of motivation, the notion of 'reward' remains extremely salient to game design. Salamone and Correa's objection that reward lacks a consistent meaning in neurobiology only goes so far here. Thinking of 'reinforcers' instead or 'reward' is less clear in the context of game design, because calling a level up, a cut scene, or a new toy a reinforcer doesn't express the player's relationship with the game anywhere near as well, and aversive reinforcement is not currently a major issue in the design of games. (It's an open question whether it should be...). Indeed, when looking at the role of explicit narrative in motivating the player via curiosity, the 'reinforcer' concept is nowhere near as helpful. Either Biederman & Vessel's 'interest' or Noel Carroll's question-and-answer 'erotetic narrative' give clearer guidance on the relevant design problems.

Salamone and Correa could be correct that associating dopamine with hedonia (that is, the feeling of pleasure) is a mistake, but actually I'm not yet convinced of this. The thing is, the association of opioids and 'liking' does not count out the possibility of there being parallel pleasures of 'wanting'. Indeed, as a play researcher my suspicion is that Paul Ekman's sensory pleasures can be understood as emotions of 'liking' while his satisfaction and fiero (triumph over adversity) can be understood as emotions of 'wanting'. No-one who had enjoyed a videogame in the hot-and-hard manner of the Conqueror play style would liken the experience of triumph with the pleasures of eating food! Indeed, there's a very interesting question raised here as to distinctions between aesthetic preferences for things like food, music, and art styles ('liking') and psychological preferences for failure-before-victory or compulsive reward structures ('wanting') that could be used to enforce Ebert's Fence against competitive and addictive games, and exclude them from the category of 'art'. I wouldn't want to do this personally – but it's a fascinating door to have sprung open all the same!

What this discussion highlights is the strange inter-disciplinary space we now find ourselves within, where each research domain has its own specialty but where the mythologies that are effective within each domain can be different without contradiction. This is because the myths we live by are not, and never have been, matters of fact – and neither can our mythologies simply be replaced by facts. Without the mythologies that justify them, there are no facts, as Nietzsche shrewdly observed. This is not, however, the same as claiming there are no facts. It is merely the long overdue recognition that objective facts are in an odd sense oxymoronic since all claimed facts are assertions in relation to specific evidence. No-one has the odd power to step outside of their world and check the facts directly, as was implied by Plato’s highly influential myth of the cave. Asserting facts is always a matter of building an evidential case. The sciences, far from repudiating this state of affairs, are the clearest example of it.


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