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December 2013

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.

Gone Home and the Constraint of Genre

This critique might contain game-ruining spoilers for Gone Home. Do not read unless you have played it already, or doubt you ever will.

Gone HomeShould Gone Home be thought of as a genre work or a literary game? What happens when we take the division asserted for novels and apply it to games?

I recently played The Fullbright Company's Gone Home, an interesting but rather expensive addition to the growing ranks of artgames. Frankly, I did not enjoy finishing it at all, and begged for it to be over as soon as possible. Once it was completed, however, I relaxed and played it again several more times, which I found rather more pleasant, although seeing how the game had been put together left me feeling it was less than it could have been. I began to query my experiences in order to disentangle the strange contradiction of a company making the kind of game that I dearly want to be made, but that I could not enjoy in its intended form. I wanted to know what made my first experience of it so unpleasant, and why it never quite worked for me as a narrative. This investigation turned out to shed light on some wider issues of interest.

Upon reflection, this problem appears to be tied to the question of genre fiction, which is not at all the question of game genre. In literature, it has long been customary to draw a line between what is termed literary fiction – which concerns what is sometimes called ‘the human condition’ – and genre fiction, which concerns specific narrative traditions. The bucket of genre fiction is vast and contains (among so many other things) crime thrillers, bodice rippers, historical fiction, murder mysteries, sword and sorcery, science fiction, romance, military fiction, horror, gay fiction, and urban supernatural. Each of the genres that constitute genre fiction as a whole is defined by clear rules establishing the content of the fictional worlds being written, rules that publishers use to promote the genres to the audiences that buy them, but also rules that the readers tacitly expect to be upheld. If the hero of your bodice ripper suddenly grows fangs and starts draining the blood of the other characters, there has been a genre fiction transgression – a vampire has invaded where it is not welcome.

My problem with Gone Home is related to the literary versus genre divide, except in games we must deal with both functional genres (FPS, adventure, RPG) as well as fictional genre. This is an artgame that wants to be taken seriously as a literary fictional world, but it is weighed down by the baggage of its functional genre – the puzzles of adventure games, and the narrative vehicles of the ‘corpse looter’, for which System Shock is the progenitor. In the case of this latter element of Gone Home's design, I have great respect – it does a brilliant job of using the narrative model pioneered by Looking Glass’ game to let the player investigate the story (or stories) in their own ways. (Since Gone Home is set in 1995, I half expected to find a copy of 1994's System Shock somewhere inside!). It’s not the search-the-written-materials that troubles me about Gone Home, it’s just the puzzles that create issues.

In genre fiction (and indeed, genre movies) the rules dictating the constraints of genre aren’t just the recipe for enjoyment for those who like the genre in particular, they are also barriers to their enjoyment by those that do not. If you do not like gore, certain kinds of horror film or book are off the menu. If you don't enjoy theatrical songs, musicals are out of the question. In this way the constraint of genre has a double meaning: it defines a fence within which a certain kind of entertainment can be found, but the same fence also constrains who is willing or able to cross the fence and garner that enjoyment. In fact, in this specific sense, even literary fiction can be understood as a genre. For games, there are two such fences – the fiction fence, and the function fence, each reducing the number of possible players by excluding those unwilling or unable to play in the requisite fashion.

In reviews of Gone Home, I noticed a trend to say that there were ‘few’ puzzles. Indeed, the spine of the game entails just three puzzles, the first of which is trivial and the last of which can be ‘solved’ just be blundering around aimlessly. Solely the middle puzzle – the central puzzle, in effect – creates the impasse, but herein lies the nub of this matter; the reason why Gone Home's genre constraints – inherited from adventure games, with their contrived object puzzles – clash with its literary intentions. This is a game of genre because it has puzzles, puzzles that are as arguably out of place in a literary game as a musical number is in military fiction. Because I no longer enjoy puzzle-solving (which I loved when I was younger), the constraints of genre prevented me as an individual from enjoying my first play of Gone Home. Only when these irritations were behind me could I relax and enjoy the beautiful house the game is set in. Indeed, my most pleasant experience of this game was a speed run (something I've never shown interest in before!) in which I left all the lights in the house off and simply enjoyed navigating the corridors in the dark, just as I do in my own home. This was impossible in the role of the ideal player of this game – I had to be transgressive, as Espen Aarseth says, to find my place in this world.

This issue of genre aside, Gone Home is still a flawed experience from a literary perspective. I don't know how old the developers are, but I'm guessing early twenties. It's not exactly a sophomoric narrative, but it's far from mature and I did not believe in the central elements of the conclusion with any conviction. I enjoyed the ending like I would enjoy any crappy rom-com (a genre I adore in spite of – perhaps because of – it’s flaws), but it fell short of the benchmarks of literary fiction by quite a wide margin. Gone Home is also weighed down by a very conventional liberal rhetoric that is far too clichéd for my tastes, and not very convincing either. If you haven’t already absorbed the ideals of expressive individualism, this isn’t going to convert you. Indeed, it is by waving the flag for this ideal that the game tries to convince you it has something challenging to say about its moral precepts, which alas it doesn’t since it never seriously engages with its ‘opposition’. The game (knowingly?) relies upon you sharing its values for its narrative appeal – which would be what you’d expect in most genre fiction. It’s a long way from what is expected in literary fiction, though.

Frankly, I feel like a heel having to take such a scolding line on something that is trying to be the kind of game I’d love to find more often. After all, I didn't give Dear Esther such a hard time. But the big difference between Gone Home and The Chinese Room's game is that the latter knows it’s genre fiction – it’s a ghost story through and through. Gone Home's trouble isn’t that it happens to be genre fiction, it’s that it seems to believe that it’s literary fiction, and it rings slightly hollow because of it. That said, I would not waste my time on a critique of something I did not want to draw attention to for positive reasons, and there is much to love about what the team have done with this house and its stories. I would hate for what I wrote here to stop people trying this experience for themselves, because the issues I have with puzzles will have no bearing on many other people’s enjoyment of this game. Gone Home is a flawed gem but it is still a gem, and it establishes the Fullbright Company as developers to watch. This game doesn’t quite hit the high notes, but I can imagine critiquing a future work by this team and saying “it's incredible how far they’ve come since Gone Home.” And that, in all honesty, is a future I dearly want to inhabit.

This is a critique of Gone Home, not a review. My review is: 'if you don't mind puzzles and like artgames, you should buy and play this game’.