Implicit Game Aesthetics (3): Koster’s Theory of Fun
Implicit Game Aesthetics (5): McGonigal and Suits

Implicit Game Aesthetics (4): Cook's Chemistry

Daniel CookTaking the emphasis on the player further, Dan Cook (pictured left) explored some ideas about a psychology of game design in his 2007 article The Chemistry of Game Design, within which he denies that games are statistical systems:

Many of the attempts to define games have focused on the mechanistic elements of the game, such as the primitive actions that the system allows the player to perform or the tokens that the player manipulates. The approach has been to treat games as self contained logical system. Mechanics and aesthetics are certainly important pieces of any model of game design, but in the end, such analysis provides little insight into what makes a game enjoyable. You end up with a set of fragmented pieces that tell you almost nothing about the meaningful interactions between the game as a simulation and the player as an active and evolving participant. Games are not mathematical systems. They are systems that always have a human being, full of desires, excitement and immense cleverness, sitting smack dab in the center. To accurately describe games, we need a working psychological model of the player.

Although this may seem to be arguing against the systems aesthetic, there is no denial here that games are systems. What Cook denies is that games can be understood solely as mathematical systems, instead advocating an examination of the psychology of players since the system means nothing without the player – something few would argue against. He continues:

Our player model is simple: The player is entity that is driven, consciously or subconsciously, to learn new skills high in perceived value. They gain pleasure from successfully acquiring skills.

Koster has expressed his pleasure with Cook's approach here, and small wonder – it has the learning aesthetic right at its heart. Indeed, with their shared interest in both systems and learning, Koster and Cook are aesthetically very close to one another – Cook even directly references A Theory of Fun for Game Design and encourages people to read it, and makes Koster-esque assertions such as:

The sensation that gamers term 'fun' is derived from the act of mastering knowledge, skills and tools. When you learn something new, when you understand it so fully you can use that knowledge to manipulate your environment for the better, you experience joy.

Note that Cook does not claim that players enjoy exercising their mastery but from the act of mastering. Again, the learning aesthetic is being placed ahead of the mastery aesthetic – players "gain pleasure from successfully acquiring skills", not from successfully exercising those skills. Cook, whose entire article is written with an evident adoration of positivistic science, draws against neuroscience to support his claims – but goes slightly awry in doing so. He cites neuroscientist Edward Vessel's remarks concerning what has been called the "click" of comprehension, and comments:

Upon the click of comprehension, a natural opiate called endomorphin, a messaging chemical in the brain similar in structure to morphine, is released. As humans, we are wired to crave new information constantly. In some sense, what you and I term curiosity can be interpreted as our brain looking for its next fix of deliciously fascinating information.

This is a correct interpretation of Vessel's work, but it misses out a great deal of what is interesting about it. Vessel, along with Irving Biederman and Xiaomin Yue, have conducted considerable research into the function of endormorphin and the receptors it binds to, and do say many things that support Koster and Cook's position. For instance, Biederman and Vessel allege:

We should add that the time course of cognitive pleasure may be somewhat protracted for children. A child may wish to hear the same story read to her over and over again (much to the chagrin of an adult reader), even to the point where sections of the story are memorized verbatim. However, when the youngster is questioned about the story—for example, why a particular character acted in a certain way—the child often reveals a lack of comprehension. It's only after a child fully understands the point of the story that she tires of hearing it again. This may be analogous to an adult's experience of mastering challenging subject matter. The payoff is in the click of comprehension, however difficult the path to that point.

However, while Biederman and Vessel's work does involve demonstrating learning outcomes associated with "novel" and "richly interpretable" experiences, this learning aspect is tangential to the core of their work, which is concerned with the neurobiology of perceptual pleasure. These kinds of experiences are rewarding because they are richly interpretable, not because learning occurs (although, as a later paper with Yue demonstrates, the endomorphin system triggers the dopamine system, which as Koster correctly observed is involved with learning). Curiosity is not a motivation towards learning, as Cook implies, but an inherently enjoyable experience. The learning, as mentioned previously, is always going on in the background, but it would be incorrect to single out the learning as the sole purpose of this neural activity. Biederman and Vessel have demonstrated, for instance, that people "enjoy searching for target images... as long as they can maintain a reasonably high level of accuracy" – this is an activity that involves endomorphin, but the reward comes from recognising the target image, not from any learning that might result. In so much as enjoyment here is related to actual performance, this could be an example of the aforementioned mastery aesthetic.

Cook's general approach to games and play does gain some support from Biederman and Vessel, however:

It may also be the case that some childhood behavior does not engage the reward system considered here. Video games are replete with repetitive perceptual inputs that seem to be endlessly amusing to young people. We suspect that children can tolerate the repetition because they are rewarded with ever-increasing scores until the game is mastered. It would be rare for someone to seek the repetitive stimulus of a game without having access to the controller! In general, many repetitive activities expressed during childhood may serve to build motor skills or improve performance, rather than increase knowledge.

Since Cook's player model focuses on the acquisition of skills, the contrast here between building motor skills and improving performance versus increasing knowledge doesn't give him issues – although it is reasonable to suspect something is being lost here. Cook claims that "When you learn something new, when you understand it so fully you can use that knowledge to manipulate your environment for the better", which runs contra to Biederman and Vessel's comments about videogames, where they expressly deny that knowledge is the critical element. It may well be for many players, especially those that favour problem aesthetics of play. But seeking improved performance is not the same as seeking new skills, for all that the improvement may be explicable in terms of skill acquisition: the goal is mastery, not learning, and the fun can lie in the exercise of the mastery, not in the understanding of it.

Of course, Cook has a much better understanding of videogames than Biederman and Vessel do! They make a mistake, for instance, in believing that it is only children that tolerate the repetition in such games – as any World of Warcraft player will attest. Even allowing for this, there is room for improvement in Cook's understanding of the relationship between curiosity and play, and between mastery and skills. Cook is insistent that the pleasure from mastering a skill is experienced only once, stating: "After the moment of mastery, a biological feedback system kicks in that dampens the pleasure response to exercising those same pathways again. What was once exciting becomes boring." His 'moment of mastery' is intended to be Vessel's "click of comprehension", but this should not be applied to skills, only to knowledge. The "click" concerns successful interpretation of a situation, and has actually very little to do with the more general process of skill acquisition, which can be continuously rewarding. A musician never masters their instrument in such a way as to become bored of it – their pleasure in developing a masterful musical skill is felt in their exercise of that skill, something that is obscured in Cook's account. Similarly, a game player may never know that they have mastered a skill, but they may still enjoy exercising it.

Like Koster, Cook prioritises the learning aesthetic over the mastery aesthetic. But Cook also misses out on another aesthetic experience his account comes extremely close to recognising – what we could call the curiosity aesthetic. The research on endomorphin is not just about the "click of comprehension", it is about why we find some perceptual experiences pleasurable. Part of this is because novel, richly interpretable images can be enjoyed whether or not any learning takes place. Curiosity does play a role when a puzzle is solved – it is part of what motivates the individual to attempt a solution – but players can enjoy curiosity that doesn't lead to such blunt payoffs, and frequently do. Exploring an intriguing terrain is fun for some players not because being able to navigate in that world is a skill with high perceived value (although it will be for some players), but because the landscape itself is richly interpretable. This is another way of saying that curiosity itself is fun, even if it never leads to learning.

Next week: McGonigal and Suits


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I love the phrase "richly interpretable" and what it implies. It lines up very well with what I suspect is going on: the gradual building on mental models.

It has been said that an awful lot of thinking is actually memory, pattern-matching against past experiences. A richly interpretable experience is by its nature something that cannot easily be reduced down to the iconified schema and chunks that we normally operate against. So we would continue working to build our understanding of it.

I don't think that the "click of comprehension" is the be-all end-all, in other words. I think that the sort of pleasure we can get from sinking deeply into a piece of art is exactly the same sort of thing that you are talking about.

Re: Curiosity.
Curiosity always leads to learning. :-) You see an unexpected stimuli. You poke and you prod it through the various acts of exploration. You determine if the stimuli is meaningful or just noise. The determination that something is meaningless and should be ignored is still learning. It is not a success story as you might find in a book, but it is the bedrock of the pattern-matching, tool acquisition process.

All this often happens at a subconscious level. Yet there is certainly a buzz of pleasure. You call it curiosity. I call it an essential aspect of human learning.

Observation: We are adapting creatures and we seem wired for rewards if we engage in exploratory learning behavior that is otherwise not directly utilitarian. It is biologically expensive to play and adapt. Curiosity is the thread that lets us wander off and with luck and a large enough population find a path that is even more successful than the current one.

Re: Mastery
I would also poke a little into the mastery aesthetic. Tell me if you will of a single case of mastery where you perform the same 'learned' action again and again that doesn't in turn yield additional learning. Often the repetition of an activity results in a slow accumulation of learning (over a period of years!) that is not immediately recognizable as learning except in the long run.

It gets tricky for a player to label their learning consciously for a couple reasons:

1)Learning occurs on multiple time scales and our conscious brain is not equipped to deal with neither very short periods of time nor very long periods of time. Yet we still need to adapt on those time scales so our observed behavior keeps up even if our conscious mind does not.

2) Chunked learning ends up being an essential tool for learning some other skill. Adding two numbers is a trivial skill that mathematicians perform again and again. Why? In the service of mastering other more complex mathematical problems. The player is an obsessive acquirers of tools and users of tools explore new terrain.

So there is room in this philosophy for the musician that practices even though they've mastered the tune. They are in it for the long haul. And the basic skills enable the acquisition of new skills.

Now some musicians may claim that they are just 'playing for the sake of playing'. This shows a lack of insight, not a failure of the model. We can test this. When I build game systems that cut off the ability for players to improve...even if the learning occurs slowly or subconsciously...that claims disappears from playtests. The player is bored. If the tool ceases to have potential utility, it is tossed aside.

So we've got learning and its associated emotional feedback, we've got tool usage for additional learning and a prediction that if potential utility is not uncovered, the tool is set aside. That's a predictive model. Which really gets to the heart of what I'm trying to do: create design tools that let us more easily build functional systems of applied psychology. To a degree, I don't care if it is called a mastery aesthetic, a curiosity aesthetic or a learning aesthetic, as long as the framework produces working results across a broad enough sample of players. :-)

Lovely article! Looking forward to the next one.


Raph: thanks for sharing your further view here! 'Richly interpretable' is precisely Biederman and Vessel's phrasing in their key papers; it has a very satisfying 'feel' as a term. :)

"I don't think that the 'click of comprehension' is the be-all end-all, in other words. I think that the sort of pleasure we can get from sinking deeply into a piece of art is exactly the same sort of thing that you are talking about."


Dan: I appreciate your feedback here.

"Curiosity always leads to learning. :-)"

Only if you construe learning in so wide a sense that it is synonymous with all behavioural activity! When I let my curiosity pull me towards a particular channel in Endless Ocean and a humpback whale swam out towards me I experienced wonder. It was the defining experience of that game for me. Okay, so I "learned" that the game contained a cut scene at that point involving a whale. But that is so wildly incidental it barely seems worth noting.

"Re: Mastery
I would also poke a little into the mastery aesthetic. Tell me if you will of a single case of mastery where you perform the same 'learned' action again and again that doesn't in turn yield additional learning. Often the repetition of an activity results in a slow accumulation of learning (over a period of years!) that is not immediately recognizable as learning except in the long run."

I broadly agree with your claim here, but it runs contra to your account in Chemistry which expressly couches learning in a goal-oriented context. Once you move learning to a process-oriented account, it becomes less clear that 'learning' is the best characterisation. You want to play an objectivity card here and say 'the player is learning and doesn't know it'. My counter is that yes, they are learning - but they are *always* learning, so this isn't necessarily the element to single out...

"When I build game systems that cut off the ability for players to improve...even if the learning occurs slowly or subconsciously...that claims disappears from playtests. The player is bored. If the tool ceases to have potential utility, it is tossed aside."

The problem here could be overjustification - that's an interesting topic in itself, but best pursued at another time. :)

"...and a prediction that if potential utility is not uncovered, the tool is set aside."

Explain the utility in the Birdman mode of Pilot Wings 64? Or in Proteus? The explanation of the enjoyment of play without goals surely cannot be a matter of utility. Perhaps your model is only suited to goal-oriented play?

"Which really gets to the heart of what I'm trying to do: create design tools that let us more easily build functional systems of applied psychology."

And I appreciate your dilligence in this regard! My goal in suggesting different aesthetics in relation to your project is to widen our understanding of how different players enjoy different experiences - and the practical outcomes of my work in this regard should hopefully feed usefully back into yours. :)

All the best!

I've been a huge fan of Dan's articles, in particular his work on skill atoms. I recently commented on his site on a newly published blog of him in regard to Loops and Arcs, and I want to express my views here again.

I think that learning-centered approaches tell us many useful things about games, but they tend to be a tad too player-centric, and seem to ignore the role of the designer in structuring a game "text" that provides the very cues upon which a player reacts and constructs the mental models during play.

A player can learn in many ways, and style is definitely one of the aspects that affects his learning. Style, however, is the realm of the designer. A designer may use many methods to cue a player (an addressee) into carrying out certain operations: A rule book, a tutorial, a cutscene, textual clues, prompts... Isn't it in first line about teaching the player "who" he is in the fictional game world and how he can exist in it (how he can put himself forward through actions)? More than that, doesn't a designer have to give the clues about what the player's goals are, what the enemies or obstacles aim at etc?

I believe therefore that a designer's choices play a central role in how a player learns, or if he even gets intrigued enough to keep learning and building models. We know how often players simply don't keep playing because they are confused about their goals and roles etc.

All this brings me to another point: What is the role of narrative comprehension in video games? When a player can grasp his own goals and those of the ghosts in Pac Man, when he moves under the pressure of necessity, isn't there narrative comprehension at work? For the sake of analyses we may of course ignore the "narrative" content and speak of the formal aspects of games, but isn't it somehow wrong to take analytical categories as facts? The thing here is that although we often say that the story doesn't really matter, it does. We all know to good that players always also seek for a motivation that justifies this or that element in a game. We cannot simply replace a zombie with a corsair because the player would ask questions in regard to coherence and motivation. So I believe that learning in a game is not only about developing mental models about gameplay, but also about story.

Creating a mental model must be based on something. While we tend to believe into a real-time process of building and updating mental models when it comes to gameplay or skills, we do not seem to accept that a narrative works in the same way. For Raph, so it seems, a story is something we tell afterwards, like a summary of our experience with the game. Dan doesn't seem to like to refer to story at all and resorts to the notion of mental model to go around it.

But the narrative aspect basically works the same: half of it is interpreting and scanning a flow of sense-data in order to find cues that would allow us to build schemata and to insist or give up on certain hypotheses, the other half is about building and updating a mental model of the state-of-affairs in the story. If the only story that is there would be the one we can only tell after the experience, how could suspense, anticipation, surprise, shock etc exist during gameplay?

I will again refer to the Russian Formalists who beautifully distinguish between discourse and story when they talk about narratives. Discourse is what we get to see and hear, that is, the flow of sense data that cues us into carrying out certain operations like schemata formation and hypothesis building (and their verification or falsification for manipulative purposes). Story on the other hand, is the mental model that we construct based on the sense-data and cues that the discourse provides us with. A lot of curiosity and desire for learning stems from the fact that the discourse simply doesn't give us enough info about how the story looks, so we stay till the end and try to find out, because we want to complete that mental image about what things were all about. The discourse would sometimes lure us into creating a mental model that would later on be abandoned and experienced as the greatest of surprises: Weren't we completely sure that Diablo can be beaten, only to find out that him who kills him would assume his role? Or is it not possible to think of game view as a way of exposure? Is bluffing in Poker not simply an attempt to make the opponent believe into a wrong mental image of the state of things?

I think these wonderful theories of Dan and Raph need to reserve more space for the role of narrative comprehension in video games.

"If the only story that is there would be the one we can only tell after the experience, how could suspense, anticipation, surprise, shock etc exist during gameplay?"

First off, I DON'T think that story is only ever constructed after the fact. That would leave out, most obviously, design-directed stories -- which I may not think of as a mechanic (cf my blog post on that--!) but that I certainly do not claim don't exist!

That said, I think it is dangerous to assume that surprise, suspense, anticipation, and shock are limited to story, unless you want to put the game of peek-a-boo in the frame of "story." At that point, you're using the word to describe nothing more than really basic cognitive phenomena like constancy and prediction of behavior. Lab rats can show anticipation and surprise.

I completely agree that we build story-models of our experience as we go. I don't agree that "a mental image of the state of things" is the same thing, though. I don't think that bluffing in Poker qualifies as story.

Altugi: you raise some interesting points here, and I don't have time to go into all of them today, alas. However, what I will say is that where you speak of 'story' I'm inclined to speak of 'fiction'. The advantage of this move is that while stories are a kind of fiction, fictive experiences expand beyond what is identifiable as a story per se. There is fiction in Pac-man but we would not normally recognise a story, as such (although there is one explicitly in Ms. Pac-man!).

One of the problems I find with the ludologists, and although Dan doesn't position himself as a ludologist he is clearly operating in the same kind of space, is that they want us to believe that we can ignore the fiction layer in games, because it's the mechanics that "really" matter. But I don't believe this. In fact, I have argued against this specifically in the section Sympathy for the Colossus in 'Imaginary Games' (based on an earlier blog post here).

Dan has said specifically that he is open to discussion of fiction, but his interest is pragmatic: he wants to know what the fiction does. This fits his practical focus, whereby he is attempting to derive design tools from applied psychology. Personally, I believe that talk of the fiction in games is the 'missing link' in our discussions on games and play - we don't go far enough in our exploration of this space. We've barely scratched the surface.

Even though your interest is specifically in a semiotic angle (the least popular approach to games, as you yourself have recognised!) I think that we are conceptual allies in this desire to foreground the role of fiction in games instead of pretending it doesn't matter. Clearly it *does* matter to players! And if it matters to players, it should matter to us as game designers or as academics.

All the best!

@Chris, the Quasi-emotions that you've mentioned are really rather interesting.

As is often the case, I use slightly different terminology, but the observations are rather related.

For example:
- By executing various loops, we can often generate what I've been calling Primary emotions or 'body loop' emotion in Somatic Marker Theory.
- These raw emotions are post processed into a variety of different flavors. We do this by applying a mental schema or label to the emotion.
- These cognitive labels are rather close to your definition of 'fiction'.

You get something very similar to the 'quasi-emotions' by evoking the physiological response and then labeling it as 'safe'...the brain moderates the result. I suspect there is a whole class of experiences that plays with that boundary. (Hence the invention of safe words :-)

So I tend to come at it not so much from the standpoint of ignoring fiction, but from integrating it into a primarily interactive experience. That doesn't put it on a pedestal. Nor does it put it out to pasture. It has a role to serve.

take care,

Dan: I'm sure this parallel between Walton's quasi-emotions and your use of primary emotions came up between us before, but I can't find a post at my end. Perhaps it was just a comment to one of yours?

All the best!

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