Neuromythology for Game Design
Frictional on Digital Storytelling

Curiosity and the Play of Explorer Games

Some brief remarks about exploration play, and the motive of curiosity that propels it.

Space EngineBecause both game designers and scholars within game studies have been almost monomanically obsessed with winning and challenge, it is all too often overlooked that player motives are as diverse as the games they choose to play. Competitiveness and achievement are not the sole motives for play, as has long been recognized by researchers such as Richard Bartle, Nicole Lazzaro, and – as far back as 1980 – Thomas Malone. In my previous write-up on Malone's view of the role of curiosity in videogames, I included this salient quote, which serves as a great stepping point to understanding games that have curiosity as a primary motive for play:

Computer games can evoke a learner’s curiosity by providing environments that have an optimal level of informational complexity (Berlyne, 1965; Piaget, 1952). In other words, the environments should be neither too complicated nor too simple with respect to the learner’s existing knowledge. They should be novel and surprising, but not completely incomprehensible.

What brought out this topic recently was Oscar Strik's reflections on the recent spate of thin play procedural space explorers (or planetarium games, if you will). Noctis, still my favourite of the form at the moment, is upfront about being a game, framing the player's exploration and cataloging of interstellar objects with a science fiction fantasy about an extinct race of space-faring cats. Space Engine, on the other hand, calls itself a planetarium (which is a stretch) and borders upon being a positivistic (non)religious artefact. It is a work of orthodox science fiction (a subject I discuss in The Mythology of Evolution) that aspires to a note of seriousness via purporting to be based on 'real science' (hence the orthodox aspect of its science fiction). Oscar calls it a simulation, which plays into this mythological view of what it does – I think this an ill-advised appellation for a fantasy about space exploration, unless it is a synonym for 'sim-game'. I would not call my tabletop RPG Outlands a simulation just because it has stellar system generation based on contemporary astrophysical theory (see p110-113)! The moment the player is making believe that they are exploring (physically or mentally) an imaginary universe, we have long since hurdled any serious barrier to the word 'game', as well as any claim to the term 'planetarium' in the original sense. 
The motive for playing space explorers like these stems from curiosity, specifically the drive towards discovery. There is a related aesthetic motive in terms of sensory pleasures - to witness the beauty of stars, planets, nebulae, and comets in an imaginary world (as illustrated in the Space Engine screen shot shown above). The motivation behind playing Proteus moves in a similar direction, although here the faux-simulation is of the joys of hiking (which I also enjoy). Proteus, unlike the space explorers, however, is a box of delights filled with designed-surprises (albeit procedurally populated) such as its frogs and bees, whereas the space explorers play upon the mystical draw of 'outer space' that science fiction (orthodox or otherwise!) has cultivated. It is epitomized in Star Trek's opening soliloquy: "where no-one has gone before", although my suspicion is a galactic cruise line sim-game with a dozen well-designed star systems could enrapture its players if it could substitute another play reward for the illusion of infinite agency in the planetariums.

Why illusion? The player can go anywhere, after all... True enough, but everywhere is randomly generated, so except when the player chooses to revisit somewhere, they have the same agency as a player rolling a die. Nonetheless, game designers frequently forget that the illusion of agency is extremely compelling and is more than sufficient to satisfy the majority of players. A particularly humourless positivist may be incapable of imagining any personal ownership of a die roll, as most of us do naturally, but the pleasure of rolling a Yahtzee is almost ineliminatable.

It is worth mentioning that procedural generation only gets you so far: I love Terraria, but generating a new world is not enough to make me want to play it through a second time, and the joys of both this and Minecraft are not coming as greatly from explorer play as it sometimes may seem. It is the agency inherent in combining the level editor with the game world itself that is the key to these game's success (something I wanted to do in my proto-Minecraft, Play with Fire, and which Populous had already done in 1989). This is not to say that Minecraft doesn't support explorer play - it most certainly does, as catalogues of world seeds and co-ordinates attest e.g. the Minecraft Seeds website (compare Noctis' badly managed yet brilliantly conceived cataloging play). But the key to Minecraft's success is high agency coupled with support for a tremendous variety of possible motivations, plus a seldom discussed but absolutely insightful choice of the regime of play. If you copy anything from Minecraft, make sure you also copy this freedom to choose how you will relate to the world itself!

This is the tip of the iceberg in respect of explorer play – a great many role-playing games – particularly in the style of rogue – offer it, while Elite, Paradroid and all the other early playground worlds all support play of curiosity and exploration in interesting ways. Endless Ocean turns marine biology into explorer play with moments of breathtaking wonder – which as Lazzaro reports is a full-body emotion, like the experience of triumph that games produce far more easily and frequently. Any game with a map that can be filled in or unfogged combines exploration and achievement in a way that requires neither violence nor conflict to compel players onwards. I could literally write a book on exploration play and still never exhaust the topic!

Uncertainty, as I argue in Imaginary Games, is the very bedrock of play, and exploration always delivers on its promise for those players, including myself, who seek the wonder, beauty, and surprises of an unexpected discovery within a curated expedition. This well has long been tapped, yet it is far, far, far from running dry. There is more creative game design waiting here than in any dimension of the well-worn play of challenges. Violence, conflict, specified achievements – these are an easy sop to player expectations, the pornography of contemporary digital play. Go forth, fellow game creators, and explore the boundless frontiers of exploration itself!

With thanks to both Oscar Strik and LateTide, who is working on a nautical rogue-like with exploration elements called Stormtorn, for the discussions that prompted this.


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This is one of the most important aspects for me in the Civilization series in the early game that I do explore the environment while my first single city is building something. While it is not the focus of the game and there is no way to win it with only exploring the map, it is a very important side activity.

LateTide: Aye, the exploration play can easily sit alongside more obvious (i.e. competitive) play. I remember this from "Seafarers of Catan", for which the exploration was more fun for me than the competition. But of course, as a "Proteus" player I'm content to be given nothing but exploration! :)

All the best!

LateTide, I agree. The first few turns of a Civilization game (V in my case) are all about the exploration and feelings of curiosity and wonder. True, some players might be thinking in terms of strategic benefit, but for me it's all about uncovering the "world" as generated by the random algorithms (including natural wonders and goodie huts). In a way this whole exploration phase sets up the inevitable immersion of a (how long have I been sitting here?) Civ game.
There are times when all I do is play for the first 50 turns, explore the surrounding world, and start all over again with a new map. It's really fun!

Hi D,
Doesn't that make you think that you could strip out all the empire building and make a game that was solely the exploration?

Actually, in a space-opera context, you could argue that "Strange Adventures in Infinite Space" pushes in this direction...

Thanks for commenting!

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