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Genes and Behaviour

Dna_and_skeleton Every now and then, the media trumpets the discovery of a gene that is responsible for a particular behavioural trait, creating an impression in the general public that our behaviour is determined biologically. But how valid is this view?

I have remained interested in the issue of genes and behaviour for some time, because I find myself particularly curious about the gaping holes in our body of scientific knowledge, and the tendency for those with a scientistic worldview to ignore or overlook these holes when doing so serves their purposes. (Scientism, incidentally, is the ideology that science has primacy over other interpretations of life, that is, that scientific knowledge is more important than other forms of thought).

A brief history of the gene is required. In the 1860’s Gregor Mendel experimented with cross-breeding pea plants, and came up with principles of inheritance that are still taught today. He hypothesised, based on his observations, that there was a factor that transferred traits from parents to offspring. In 1909, Wilhelm Johannsen coined the term gene for this factor. During discussion in this era of science, all manner of properties were considered to be inherited – including physical traits, behavioural traits, and derived properties such as intelligence and even criminal tendency.

In 1953, Hershey and Chase demonstrated that it was DNA that contained genetic information (and not proteins, as was previously believed), and shortly after several different groups (including Watson and Crick) discovered the helical structure of DNA. There was much excitement in the scientific community, as it seemed that we had learned everything there was to know about inheritance – traits were encoded in genes in the DNA molecule, and this was inherited by the offspring.

However, something rather vital was missed out during this process of the development of ideas of genetics, specifically, it was assumed that everything that was discussed as an inherited trait prior to the discovery of DNA as the means of transmitting genetic information, was indeed transmitted via DNA. In the case of behaviour, this view persisted even in the total absence of any supporting data.

Genetics is a complex subject, but we only need to understand a few simple aspects to conduct this discussion. A gene is a collection of nucleotides that codes for one of two different things: either it is the blueprint for a protein, or it is produces RNA molecules that regulate genes (turn them on or off) or otherwise affect the production of proteins. (Modern research has complicated this view by showing that a gene can code for different proteins, and the DNA for a protein need not come from consecutive sequences, but these points are irrelevant to this discussion).

Let me reiterate this point, as it is crucial: a gene codes for a protein, or it affects the production of proteins. There is nothing else we currently know of that a gene does.

Why, then, is there such talk of a genetic basis of behaviour? Because if behaviour is rooted in genetics, either we are saying that a protein produces behaviour (which we shall see shortly is absurd), or we are claiming that behaviour emerges somehow from genes in a manner we don’t understand and cannot currently prove – at which point the honest scientific position is to admit that we do not know how behaviour is inherited.

Let us look at the claim that a protein produces behaviour by examining a specific case. In 1993, a well-publicised report was published in the journal Science recounting the work of Dean Hamer which claimed to have found a gene which correlated with homosexuality. The media trumpeted this research as having found “the gay gene”. This conclusion was later shown to be flawed, in particular, a study of homosexuality in identical twins demonstrated that homosexuality was not expressed in both twins. Furthermore, studies demonstrated that adoptive brothers show greater incidence of ‘shared’ homosexuality than non-twin biological brothers. This is extremely strong evidence that homosexuality is not genetic in basis.

And we should not be surprised by this, because if there were “a gay gene”, it would mean that there was a gay protein, and that the gay protein caused homosexuality. (This leads to the amusing notion of having a “gay protein shake” – would that make someone gay?) How can a single protein cause a complex behaviour? We have no model that allows for this, and indeed, what little we know of the biological basis for behaviour makes this an untenable claim. It makes for good media sound bites, but it makes for very poor science.

What is the evidence that behaviour is genetic? There is none, although there is some evidence that behaviour is inherited.

The strongest evidence relates to medical disorders. It is certainly the case that problems with specific genes (bugs in the genetic code, if you will) can cause alterations in behaviour. This is not dissimilar to observations that physical damage to the brain can change behaviour. But of course, what we mean when we talk of behaviour in the context of brain damage is not what we always mean when we talk of behaviour – when you try to chat up a potential romantic partner we can call that behaviour, but we are not using ‘behaviour’ in the same context as when we talk about the behaviour that results from damage to the brain.

There have been experiments that demonstrate that altering genes in mice can screw around with mouse behaviour, but this seems to be in the same kind of category – behaviour in the sense of a medical disorder is not the same as behaviour in general terms.

There is evidence that ‘behaviour breeds true’, that is that it is possible for behaviour to be inherited. For instance, consider the behaviour of specific dog breeds, such as the retrieval instinct of a Labrador. But this is evidence for the inheritance of behaviour, not for the genetic basis of behaviour. We can leap the burden of proof if we wish and jump straight to DNA as the basis of this inheritance (and it may not be wholly unreasonable to do so) – but it is not strictly scientific to do so. At best, the idea that all behaviour has a genetic basis is a hypothesis.

Finally, there is the relationship between species and behaviour – in that different species have different behaviours associated with them. But this cannot be considered evidence for a genetic basis for behaviour, since some behaviours alter in species in single generation steps (migration behaviour in birds, for instance) – which would be impossible if behaviour was determined by genes.

Where does this leave us on the subject of genes and behaviour?

The bottom line is that while virtually all behaviour can be influenced by genes, there is no evidence that behaviour is determined by genes. There is no gay gene, no gene for intelligence, no gene for violence, no gene for reliability, no gene for amiability… there is no gene for any behaviour, neither does it seem likely that any such gene will be found. Errors in genes can cause specific medical conditions (which have behaviours associated with them), as with Down’s syndrome for instance, but that is as far as the body of research currently goes.

In 1994, the journal Science published an article by Charles Mann entitles Genes and Behaviour which contained this apposite quote:

Time and time again, scientists have claimed that particular genes or chromosomal regions are associated with behavioral traits, only to withdraw their findings when they were not replicated. "Unfortunately," says Yale's [Dr. Joel] Gelernter, "it's hard to come up with many findings linking specific genes to complex human behaviors that have been replicated. "...All were announced with great fanfare; all were greeted unskeptically in the popular press; all are now in disrepute.

We are nowhere near to understanding the basis for behaviour, although we can say with confidence that complex behaviours do not result from single genes. Because the genes we inherit come in part from one parent, and in part from the other, attempts to tie behaviours to multiple genes seem equally flawed. Something else is going on, we don’t know what, and all we can really do is wait and see what future research turns up on the utterly mysterious subject of behaviour.

Wii are Disappointed

Sadly, it seems I am not destined to recieve a Wii on the launch day here in Europe. Unlike the US, where it seems people were made to form publicity-friendly lines to acquire their new consoles, here in the UK, we have a less exciting but more practical pre-order system. My pre-order was not within the initial allocation of Wii's, so my only hope for a Wii before the Winter Festivals is if Nintendo manage to ship extra Wii to Europe some time in December. I don't know whether to get my hopes up or not, to be honest.

One thing is apparent - the Wii brand name is a marketing goldmine. Not only did it generate massive initial attention because of the apparent insanity of the name, but now that people have got used to it, it presents infinite opportunities for straplines and punchy headlines of all kinds. Both PS3 and 360 seem quite dull names, by comparison, although I can't deny that PlayStation is a strong brand name and well worth maintaining, and Xbox has the capacity to be used creatively, as in a recent ebay commercial, and in an episode of The Simpsons.

And on the subject of brand names, I notice that Southern Comfort have spent a considerable sum of money advertising their syllabic abbreviation SoCo. It seems this phrase has been around for a while now, but that the company behind the drink wants to push this punchier neologism as their new brand. I presume this is an attempt to appeal to Generation Txt, who are always looking to save a few keypresses on their phones. I have a feeling it will work for them, although it makes me feel slightly queasy to think about it.

Incidentally, my phone's predictive text input renders 'Wii' as 'Wig', 'PS3' as 'Pre' and 'Xbox' as 'Wanx'. Isn't technology grand!

Dramatic Role Proxies

Dynamic narrative is not something that the mass market for games has any real interest in at this time, but it is something that many game-literate players see as something of a grail. There are many possible approaches, and it can be difficult to know which are worth exploring and which might be dead ends without committing time and resources to prototyping. One such approach is the substitution of proxy characters for specified dramatic roles. 

Although I greatly value the high degree of autonomy I enjoy with International Hobo, it is offset by our lack of resources. Nowhere is this more apparent than the sheer volume of work we have carried out investigating and blueprinting dynamic narrative systems that we generally do not have the resources to implement. Many of these systems have been proposed for certain game projects, but none of those projects have proceeded to funding, and that leaves a lot of the ideas and concepts largely untested.

Reluctant Hero is intended to include a dynamic narrative system, but the question that hangs over the design of this system is the extent to which we will be able to implement new concepts. Game design is almost always a balancing act – new ideas may have great merit, but they take time (and hence money) to prototype, implement and tweak. Usually, I would advocate building a game out of the fewest number of game systems necessary – and since this game already has an inventive combat system, negotiation system and structure, I have to seriously consider to what extent we can risk exploring dynamic narrative techniques as well. 

A fallback position is essential in such situations, and in this case we can always resort to a regular cRPG scripting solution but divided into an episodic structure, much like a TV show (a topic I have discussed before). The game story can then be pieced together from atomic components. This will provide a basic dynamic narrative, but it delivers rather less than I would hope for.

What I would like to explore in this instance is abstracting out the dramatic roles of the narrative, and then instantiating these roles in each episodic instance, which for now I shall term dramatic role proxies. This is an idea we developed before for a rather interesting game project which, sadly, did not proceed to funding. However, the basic idea has always seemed sound and worthy of further investigation. 

Before discussing the problems relating to this, it is necessary to relate something of the data structure of the world of Reluctant Hero. Essentially, the world of the game consists of a database (as can be claimed for any cRPG or MMORPG) the principle elements of which are the Personas (people, monsters) and the Sites (locations, establishments, lairs). Every Persona exists at a Site in the game world – so the world of the game consists of a number of Sites, at which lives a certain collection of Personas (some of which are NPCs and some are monsters).

The idea behind role proxies is that the Personas that the player meets will be collected in lists – Friends lists for those the player has related positively with, and Enemies lists for those the player has related negatively with. (An Allies and Nemesis list may also be used for the player character’s closest friends and worst enemies). These lists are then used to substitute for the general case roles in the narrative engine. 

So, consider for instance an episode that is scripted around a hostage situation plot. In informal terms, this episode script might read something like this:

An ENEMY occupies one of the Hero’s ESTABLISHMENTS, disabling the EMPLOYEES and demanding 50% of the Hero’s new worth. The Hero has 7 days to pay up. 

When these story events come into play, the game would look at the player’s Enemy list and select a Persona from this list to instantiate the dramatic role of ‘Enemy’. Similarly, an Establishment (e.g. a Smithy, a Trading House, a Guild house) owned by the player is selected from the appropriate list, and everyone who has that Site as their home is disabled. A clock is then set for 7 days for the player to either pay up the ransom or overcome the Enemy by other means. (A pre-requisite for this episode being triggered would be the player owning an Establishment, of course).

This episode can then be scripted according to this general pattern. When the player encounters it, the Enemy chosen will be someone that the player has already encountered and who has a reason to hate the player character, and will therefore make sense in narrative terms. 

Where are the difficulties with such a system? It transpires that the actual substitution of dramatic role proxies is the easy part – the difficult parts are identifying circumstances within the game state which generate the role classes (Enemy, Friend), and determining how to store dialogue so that it can be meaningfully recovered when necessary.

The first of these problems is most certainly soluble – Enemies and Friends can be generated both by the action of episode scripts, and also by the outcome of combat situations and negotiations (both of which have their own engine, and hence such assignments can be made as part of the exit conditions of these systems). The problem in this case is that there will probably be a large number of ad hoc situations which must be detected – and detecting specific cases in game state is a recurrent game design problem. It is not that there is a problem to be solved, per se, so much as concern must be given to the amount of time and resources required to implement, and subsequently to debug such a system. 

The second of these problems is somewhat trickier. It requires thought as to where in the game data structures the dialogue is held, and to which dialogue is specified in the episode scripts, and which is owned by the Persona in question. For instance, we can store a value with each Enemy that reflects why that Persona became an Enemy. This value can have associated with it dialogue that comments on why this Persona hates the player.

For instance:

Player kills Enemy’s Husband:
“I can never forgive you for killing my husband.”

Player kills Enemy’s Wife:

“You killed my wife, and I can never forgive you.”

Player foiled coup to control $Region (episode outcome):

$Region should have been mine, but you had to get in my way”

These motive lines can then be given a reference ($Enemy:motive) and triggered inside episode scripts where appropriate.

For instance, in a prior example of a hostage situation, an event may occur when the player character and Enemy meet for the first time in the episode: 

Player: “Why are you doing this, $Enemy?”
Enemy: $Enemy:motive
Enemy: “Consider this my revenge.”

This scratches the surface of the technique, but I hope it’s clear that there potential here for constructing stories on the fly in which the player’s actions have consequences which are reflected in the story, and hence in dialogue. 

As well as Friend and Enemy proxies, Lover, Monster and perhaps even Mentor and Mercenary proxies may also be possible. For instance, if the player exterminates all but one of the monsters from a lair when they are young, the surviving creature can be added to the Monster list along with a narrator-delivered introduction line to be played when it is chosen (decades later) as a Monster for a particular episode, e.g.:

Narrator: “The $Monster seems to recognise you – there is hatred in its eyes.”

All of this makes this particular dynamic narrative form sound easier than in practical terms it is likely to reflect, and neither I nor 3D People have committed to following this approach yet. I need to specify the formal elements of this system completely so that we can fully assess the scope and risks before we can proceed. 

A related issue worth considering is whether or not to write dialogue in a direct form, whereby the characters in questions will ‘speak’ the lines, or whether to script the entire game from a narrator perspective.

So for instance (and assuming a female enemy – both male and female case lines must be written in most cases to simplify localisation): 

Enemy: “I can never forgive you for killing my husband.”


Narrator: She says she can never forgive you for killing her husband.

The advantage of the narrator approach is that we could then use a narrator voice actor to record all the dialogue of the game (at least in principle – some stitching might be required). If we don’t use this approach, it will be hard, if not impossible, to record any dialogue for the game. 

Frankly, I’m uncertain of the best way to jump on this issue, but I’m swaying away from a purely narrator based approach. It might be superior to use the narrator to introduce, link and close individual episodes, and leave in (unspoken) dialogue for the rest of the story elements.

This doesn’t cover all of the issues (I have skipped over the dialogue matters relating to funnelling and breadcrumbing, for instance, as this is the easy part in this case) but it gives a snapshot of the problems and potential currently being explored for the dynamic narrative of Reluctant Hero. I don’t know if we will end up using dramatic role proxies or not, but at the moment it seems tenable – a more complete specification of the system will be required to convince me that there no ‘unexploded bombs’ in the design before we can proceed. 

Naturally, I welcome opinions from other people on this subject. Are the goals of this approach worth pursuing? How much of the dialogue workload should be given to the narrator? Let me know what you think.

Time of Change

What interesting times we live in... Sony and Microsoft locked in a vicious duel with the outcome uncertain (at least outside of Japan), new interface devices coming out of Nintendo like they've been subcontracted by Santa's workshop, and on top of all this, EA might start making original games. Hey, we even weighed their corporate soul and found them a slight force for good!

Yes, it seems that FEAP may be coming to end.  The Futile Electronic Arts Protest, my one-person boycott of Wil Wright's talks, has been my largely ineffective way of protesting against EA, the largest publisher by turnover, being the smallest investor in original IP.
(The point being: there aren't any EA games I want to play, so I can't economically protest, as I would normally do, so I'm forced to behaviourally protest by giving up something I would otherwise want - the chance to see Wil Wright talk.)

At the Montreal International Game Summit, I spent some time talking to Chris James of EA Montreal (nice chap -  I met him at GDC) who reliably informs me that EA's promise to put some original game titles out into the marketplace isn't just hot air, and that there are indeed a raft of original titles on their way (including the one he is working on).

So, when EA release their third original title in a twelve month interval, FEAP will be dissolved. And obviously, it doesn't matter how unimpressive the idea is, so something like Crysis still counts as an original IP even though an alien-busting FPS isn't exactly a new concept.

Of course, it could still take a while for this condition to be reached.

Not that you should assume from this that I'm against licensed IP - it serves a vital role in the games industry, both in providing players with games they want to play, and in supporting mid-sized developers in an otherwise hostile market. It's just that I believe that large corporations should have obligations beyond making money, and that we the consumers have the collective power to shape their behaviours. Not to mention its just poor business practice not to be developing new intellectual property when you've got the funds available for it.

Don't you think a company which makes half a billion dollars of profit on three billion dollars of turnover can afford a few million dollars investment in original ideas? I suppose the question that remains is: can a company that huge create new and interesting games, or is it too hard for organisations that size to innovate? I'm certainly looking forward to finding out.

Last original IP from EA:
Black (Criterion), published February 2006.

Warming the Teapot

Back from travels both diverse and international, and ready for the tough push towards the Winter Festivals. I'm doubtful that posting will resume before Tuesday next week, but let's see what happens. A few idle thoughts...

  • Many thanks to everyone who attended my talk on Play Styles and Player Needs at the Montreal International Game Summit. It was a pleasure to be invited to talk at this event!
  • The push for a Master version of Play with Fire must reach its climax shortly - still hoping to hit a release date in December.
  • I'm off to Slovakia in December to meet with 3D People and discuss various matters arising with them, including making some framework decisions for Reluctant Hero. I might try and air out some of the remaining design issues here before I go.
  • I'm making some progress on my reading list; I guess the Ethics campaign will probably begin in the Spring. I still have quite a bit of Temperament material to get out of my system first, including profiles of Strategic, Tactical, Logistical and Diplomatic play, which was the point of the exercise to begin with. Also, some more outlandish pieces, such as what Temperament Theory suggests about politics.
  • I find it interesting that I'm actually now debating the choice between a 360 and a PS3, although I feel no great compulsion towards either at the moment. More interesting right now is the European launch of Wii in just a fortnight's time. Looking forward to reading the response to the US release in other people's blogs shortly. I expect the hardcore players to be disappointed by the lack of sensitivity with the wiimote (compared to a mouse), although I doubt the casual audience will care as they didn't with the EyeToy (which was even less sensitive).

More soon!


The Wheel of Fortune begins on Saturday, and therefore for twelve days there will be no more Only a Game posts... I will return on the other side around 23rd November or thereabouts. It's unfortunate that this week I've been away in Montreal with shaky internet access, and so I haven't been able to leave anything substantial for people to chew on in my absence. But of course, there's a wealth of nonsense archived here on the blog, so anyone so inclined is free to dig into the past and see what they can uncover.

I might post one more time if I find the black squirrel that Nicole Lazzaro reports seeing around McGill university, otherwise I'll see you all in about two weeks.

Have fun everyone!

Playing with Grammar

Communication Grammar is the template for communication – and the play of a videogame can be seen as a communication between the game and the player. So what are the grammars of this play?

In language, grammar is the common template to the usage of words that allows us to interpret what is meant by any given sentence. Crudely speaking, every sentence concerns an acting agent (the subject noun of the sentence) who performs an action (the verb). In the case of transitive verbs, the action also acts upon something (the object noun of the sentence) – for instance, ‘He is crying’ requires no object, but ‘He is making’ requires an object, as in ‘he is making games’. 

In general (although it may become contrived) all communication has an essential grammar to it – a template to which the communication is fitted. Ordinarily, communications are bidirectional – if you speak to the bartender, you and the bartender both use the same grammar. But in the play of videogames, the communications can be more disparate.

For example, we can imagine that there are two separate channels of communication in a most videogames: 

  • The game communicates to the player what is required, expected      or possible (the goals or possibilities of play)
  • The player communicates to the game their desired action

These forms of communications have different grammars. The “goal grammar” which tells the player what they should be doing (or what they could be doing) is generally delivered in natural language – e.g. “collect 30 coins” – but it could equally be expressed directly through the grammar of play. 

In Play with Fire, for instance, the player is taught by early fields that the goal is to touch a particular type of block – and once the player has experienced this goal (which is never stated in words outside of the manual) the player knows that this is the goal. Of course, how this goal is achieved varies from field to field.

This is a rare example of wordless communication of goals, but although it without words it is not without grammar. The grammar of play appears to presume the existence of a goal – only the undirected experimentation of toyplay is “goal-less”, and even in this context players may still look for goals, and in the absence of stated goals they begin to create their own.  

Is it the case, therefore, that the grammar of play presumes goals, even in “goal-less” toyplay? I am uncertain, but my instinct says this might be so.

The player’s communication with the game is what we have already discussed in the context of play specifications. In general: 

            Avatar performs [Action] {on [Object]}

Where the Avatar is the subject of the “sentence of play”. The language of the Action is the language of the interface – press a button to evoke an Action (for instance) in a typical console game, or write a literal sentence in a text adventure. The language of Action may also be context sensitive (which is not uncommon in spoken language, either – in Japanese, for instance, the subject of a sentence is often implied and not stated). 

As for the Objects, these may be acquired automatically by the Action, but still there is some obligation for the game to identify the legitimate subjects – in so much that most games do not allow interaction with all the nouns in the game space. This leads to the requirement for a visual language which demarks the different forms of subject nouns, as can be seen clearly in the Lego Star Wars games which mark the subjects of different verbs (such as the places where a grapple may be launched, or something that can be forced, or built) with a particular visual language (a target mark, a glowing effect, or jittering Lego fragments).

Of course, some games do not have a single Avatar, and here the form becomes: 

            [Subject(s)] perform [Action] {on [Object]}

In these cases, it is necessary for the subjects to be chosen by the player. Just as the limitations of our vocal chords and hearing define the limits of spoken language, so the limitations of the interface device set the limits of subject selection in play – the mouse-driven RTS uses dragged selection boxes to denote subjects, for instance, while party based cRPG games require clicking or menu selection to choose the subject. All of this adds to the complexity of the “player grammar”, and hence to the degree of learning required for the player to begin to play the game, although of course by reusing elements of the player grammar in games of similar genre this learning curve is effectively truncated for experienced players. 

The grammar of play appears to be implicit to biological life – cats, dogs and squirrels appear to play according the assumption of goal, for instance, but the player grammar and the goal grammar are artefacts of the design of a game.

Are there more artful forms of goal grammar? More elegant forms of player grammar? Are there better grammars for play than those we currently use? Probably. But as already mentioned, we are limited by our interface devices, and also by the complexity barrier whenever we try to invent a new language of play for a game, instead of borrowing from the language already in place. 

Perhaps the more interesting question is: can we catalogue the grammar and language of existing game genres and learn something about the language of play that currently exists in videogames? I am curious to see how if such an endeavour is indeed viable.

The opening image is Communication by Joe Bartz, which I found here, although his site appears to be here. As ever, no copyright infringement is implied and I will take the image down if asked.

Les Écureuils de Montréal

01_eastern_grey_squirrel_sciurus_carolin_3 Parc du Mont-Royal is one of the largest green spaces in the city of Montreal, and is situated around a trio of 200 metre tall hills from which the park takes its name. Covered in trees, both coniferous and broad-leaved, it is criss-crossed with trails and paths, affords spectacular views over the city, and is especially beautiful in Autumn. But naturally, what brought me to the park was the squirrels.

Mont-Royal is home to at least three different species of arboreal rodent. The largest and most populous species appears to be the familiar Eastern Grey Squirrel (Sciurus carolinensis), which exists in large numbers. I can’t be certain of this, however, as the boldness of this species makes them far easier to spot and therefore may skew any attempt to provide an accurate census. The squirrel pictured above has a beautiful pelt, showing a touch of red amidst the grey (not uncommon for this species). Grey squirrel dreys, which look like collections of leaves caught in the crook of branches, can be seen everywhere in the park if you know what you are looking for. 

02_eastern_chipmunk_tamias_striatus The smallest species present is the Eastern Chipmunk (Tamias striatus). I think this is the first time I’ve seen chipmunks in the wild, and getting a photograph proved particularly difficult as I’m using the camera in my phone which has no appreciable zoom. Although arboreal rodents of the family scuridae like the squirrels, chipmunks actually live in underground burrows – the rocky sides of Mont-Royal seem to be an ideal habitat for them.

03_american_red_squirrel_pine_squirrel_t The third species is the American Red Squirrel, or Pine Squirrel (Tamiasciurus hudsonicus). This is a different red squirrel species to the one I am used to in the UK, but both red squirrel species share the common trait of being both smaller and more reticent than their grey cousins. I was very pleased to get the photo of this one, as it is not easy to photograph red squirrels without a telephoto lens. I have never before encountered red and grey squirrels in the same place (although it is possible in parts of Scotland) as the grey squirrels in the UK carry an infection which is fatal to the native red squirrels which are consequently endangered.

04_pleased_to_meet_youcropped The behaviour of the grey squirrels in the park varies according to where you encounter them. At the outside edge, or at the summit around the “Chalet” (a large and beautifully constructed hall), the greys are extremely accustomed to humans, and practically expect to be fed. When I sat on a wall on the summit, a nearby grey immediately came and sat with me to see if I had anything tasty to offer. The squirrel pictured was particularly friendly, and had no problem climbing up me to get food. 05_curiouscropped He seemed to be having a tougher time of life near the summit than the other squirrels – the grey squirrel pictured at the start of this article had an overlapping home range, and looked to be in considerably better health. I suspect he may have had low status in the squirrel society, and his amiability was driven by hunger – he was probably getting a smaller share of the handouts on account to being smaller, and therefore more easily chased away by other greys (in fact, the aforementioned squirrel tried to chase this little guy away from me, but I don’t reward this behaviour in semi-domesticated squirrels so it won him no advantage). 

06_cautious In the centre of the park, where the forest is densest, the greys behave much like wild squirrels, foraging for their own food among the leaf litter, as well as climbing along branches to pull seeds from the trees. They do not expect humans to be a source of food, and are therefore somewhat confused when one starts throwing nuts. 07_ill_have_that_thanksI do not know if this is apparent to someone who has not spent some time watching squirrels, but the squirrel pictured has a look of cautious interest on his face – he wants to know what’s going on, but he’s not too keen to trust me. As I was holding my hand out to win his trust, I was treated to an unexpected visitation: a small bird of the tit family flitted down and landed on my hand, picked a choice nut and flew off . There was a small flock of these birds, probably black-capped chickadees (Parus atricapillus), who took turns to land on my hand, pick something good, and then leave. Occasionally, they would find something that didn’t appeal, and throw it off my hand before picking something else. I have a short video of this behaviour, which apparently is not uncommon for this bird species. This short movie is unfortunately sideways, but nevermind.

08_up_and_down On my second trip to the park, I attempted to befriend this pair of female squirrels on the edge of the park – probably sisters born this year. However, a fat and obnoxious male, who may or may not have been related, kept arriving and chasing them off. I did not feed him, which left him feeling quite frustrated, and he eventually retreated up a tree to sulk. The two sisters came back down and reconnected with me, but were still too shy to eat from my hand. 

09_on_the_bench_2When I sat on a nearby bench, another grey immediately came and sat upon the bench with me. He had clearly been fed by someone from a bench before, as he seemed to know this game all too well. In fact, he was more than happy to clamber all over me to pick the nut of his choice from my hand, as this short video shows.

10_from_the_handcropped However, even this friendly little grey had nothing on the group of four squirrels (almost certainly siblings) I met near the summit that day. Grey squirrels are often suspicious of people on their own, but when they gather in groups they become more bold. 11_im_ready_for_my_close_upPartly this is probably the reassurance of a second opinion: if I judge you as not a threat, I could be wrong, but if we all judge you as not a threat, we can be more confident. Additionally, grey squirrels are great game players within their peer group, and this quartet positively excelled themselves competing to be more bold. This picture – which is not zoomed in any way – shows how close they were willing to let me come. 

12_from_the_tree A first for me, I was able to get one of this group to feed from my hand while hanging from a tree, which is extremely unusual behaviour for any squirrel. 13_hanging_on_slightly_blurred I also managed to persuade one of them to climb me as a tree, as this slightly blurry picture depicts – the squirrel in question is literally hanging from my arm. 14_the_restaurant_on_my_knee_slightly_blHaving them stop on my knee to feed was incredibly easy – normally it would take more than an hour of trust building with an urban squirrel to elicit this result.

The sun was setting, alas, so I had to bid them farewell and make my descent, heading off to Chu Chai, an excellent vegetarian Thai restaurant recommended to me by one of my readers for my first decent meal since I arrived in Montreal. If there's one thing my time in the park has taught me it's that I need to get a digital camera with a decent telephoto function. If anyone can recommend one, I'd welcome some advice.

I have been to many parks, and met many squirrels, but the squirrels of Parc du Mont-Royal have been exceptionally charming. If time allows, I hope to visit one more time before I leave the city.


Next week, I'm in Canada for the third Montreal International Game Summit where I'll be giving a talk on the subject of Play Styles and Player Needs. I have no idea whether blogging will be disrupted; I guess as long as there's a wireless network at the hotel it'll be business as usual. It'll be my first time above the 48th parallel on the North American continent... Let me know if you're at the summit, and if anyone knows Montreal and can recommend a good place to visit, vegetarian restaurant, or place to meet squirrels do let me know.

I'd like to find some Eastern grey squirrels while I'm there, because they are known to have two seperate colour phases, grey and black, and apparently black is the dominant colour in Ontario and Quebec; I've not yet seen a black squirrel. It's the same species as the greys in the UK (Sciurus carolinensis) but the populations have some different genes for fur colour. And following my recent encounter with an albino squirrel in London, I've learned they have an entire breeding population of white squirrels in Exeter, Ontario, but that's five hundred miles away from where I'm going, alas.

Lastly, as you can see, I finished the last of the Temperament pieces today. I'll start talking about how these relate to play over the next few months, laying stronger foundations for the DGD2 research which is still lurking somewhere in the future, but I might also talk about how these temperament issues relate to my own life in some more personal pieces... To be honest, I have no idea what is going to happen next on the blog, so I'm going to try and relax and see what flies out of my fingers.

Have a great weekend!


Splashofcolors640x480 The expression of the Idealist temperament is related to a need for meaning and significance, a desire for authenticity, and a drive to seek the unique identity of all things. Those that strongly express this pattern of emotional response are empathic, cooperative and altruistic, and it is the driving pattern behind the humanities – especially literature, poetry and fine art – counselling, journalism, mysticism, and humanitarianism. 

Please read the Statistical Disclaimer before proceeding (which also includes the copyright notices). Remember that what is provided here is effectively a detailed definition of an adjective, ‘Rational’, which has been defined in line with a psychological model. 

Conversion from Myers-Briggs Typology

To anyone familiar with the Myers-Briggs inventory, the Idealist temperament is expected to be the primary Temperament pattern for any preference code containing NF (Intuitive and Feeling preferences), and a supporting pattern for any code containing SF (Sensing and Feeling preferences). 

1. Profile

In the Introduction to Temperament Theory, we saw how the Idealist temperament was related to Abstract language use, an Affiliative approach to taking action and a focus on Motive. We will begin by reviewing these three axis in the specific context of the Idealist temperament. Throughout this piece we shall be referencing the work of David Keirsey, marked [K], and his student Linda Berens, marked [B] (complete references are provided in the disclaimer). Where quotes talk of “an Idealist” as a type of person, they have been rewritten to talk of people expressing Idealist as a pattern, i.e. the use of ‘Idealist’ as a noun has been rewritten such that it is used as an adjective. 

Abstract language use reflects an interest in the imaginative, rather than the tangible:

[People strongly expressing Idealist] are naturally inductive in their thought and speech, which is to say that they move quickly from part to whole, from a few particulars to sweeping generalisations, from the smallest sign of something to its entirety. With their focus on unseen potentials, on the not visible and the not yet, [they] show an extraordinary sensitivity to hints of things, mere suggestions, inklings, intimations, symbols.

[With a] zeal to connect disparate ideas [the communication of people expressing Idealist] is often laced with metaphors, ascribing features to people and things that belong to other people and things – animate or inanimate, visible or invisible. [K] 

The use of language associated with the Idealist pattern can become so metaphorical as to seem to lack any specific content:

In the Idealist pattern, abstract language is often global and diffuse so people can make their own meanings and find their own identities. [B] 

We encounter language in the style of the Idealist pattern most commonly in poetry and poetic lyrics. While many songs are quite explicit in their subject matter, some seem to imply rather than state, or contain such ambiguity that it is possible for different people to construct entirely different meanings from them. The lyrics of Bob Dylan and Tori Amos, or the poetry of Allen Ginsberg or Emily Dickenson are examples.

Abstract language is common to the Rational pattern as well as the Idealist pattern, but the use of language is quite distinct: 

Beyond the vivid metaphor, [the language use associated with the Idealist pattern often displays a] charming habit of overstatement, quite the opposite of the [Rational pattern’s] penchant for understatement. Idealist expression is rich in hyperbole and exaggeration, and at the same time short on gradation. [People expressing Idealist in language] do not say they are “somewhat” interested in an idea, or dissatisfied “in some degree” with a person’s behaviour; they are “totally” fascinated or “completely” disgusted, “perfectly” delighted or “absolutely” appalled… While they tend to ignore degrees of gradation, [such people] are highly sensitive to the nuances of communication that qualify messages… [K] 

The second aspect of the basic profile is a bias towards an Affiliative approach to taking actions:

For the Idealist pattern, Affiliative roles help us know who we are, our unique identity, and provide a way to find meaning and purpose in what we do. [B] 

Cooperating with others is the goal in this approach:

Acting in concert with others for the good of the group – cooperation – is considerably more important to [people expressing Idealist] then the functional utility of their chosen tools and operations. In the [view of such people], people’s instruments and actions need to be acceptable to others, even if they prove less effective than some other disapproved instruments or actions… Indeed [they] can be quite suspicious of utilitarian actions which go after results too coldly or single-mindedly… [K] 

The Guardian pattern shares this Affiliative focus, but is more focussed on compliance with the laws and rules than in cooperation, per se:

[Those people who express Idealist] would have a consensus on how [the assets of society] are to be used. This is a slightly different shade of cooperation than that which characterizes [people expressing Guardian], who are more interested in compliance than consensus. Thus, [people expressing Idealist] observe the many laws that govern our conduct… not simply because they are laws, but because they represent a common assent of their community, a unity of purpose or like-mindedness that [such people] hold dear. Accord, concurrence, agreement, accommodation: this side of cooperation is what looms large in the consciousness of [such people]. [K] 

The third and final aspect of the basic Idealist profile is a focus on Motive:

In the Idealist temperament pattern, attention goes to others’ meaning and purpose of being. For [people expressing Idealist], motives represent a person’s spirit and higher purpose in life. Motives must be attended to because they provide opportunities to achieve consensus and work together towards a common goal and at the same time achieve a purpose. [B] 

This is quite distinct from the Motive-focus associated with the Artisan pattern, which is concerned with what individuals get out of any given situation. The Idealist pattern is much more concerned with dissipating conflicts and promoting cooperation, as we shall see by examining the type of intelligence associated with this pattern.

2. The Diplomatic Intellect 

According to Temperament Theory, each of the patterns is associated with a particularly kind of intelligence. The Idealist temperament is related to Diplomatic thinking:

Diplomacy is the ability to deal with people in a skilful, tactful manner… With their instinct for seeking common ground, with their ability to interpret each side’s communications in a positive way, with their gift for putting themselves in another’s place, and with their metaphorical language easily and fluidly turning one thing into another, [such people] are well-equipped for the difficult task of influencing people’s attitudes and actions, not only inspiring them to grow, but also settling differences among them, smoothing difficulties – ever looking to enlighten the people around them and to forge unity among them. [K] 

When the Idealist pattern is directed inwards, that is, in the case of the introverted expression of Idealism, the expression of diplomacy becomes more indirect. Consider the extreme case of Emily Dickenson, who wrote almost two thousand poems during her lifetime but kept them locked in a drawer. In this introverted role, the person expressing Idealist often requires a lot of space from other people – the day to day conflicts of the world can be especially draining.

Keirsey speculates that a desire to avoid or eliminate conflict is the driving force behind the Diplomatic intellect:

Perhaps [people expressing Idealist] are given to diplomacy because they are so deeply disturbed by division and discrimination. Conflicts and controversies unsettle them, disputes and debates set them on edge, even the [Rational person’s] insistence on clear-cut definitions and discrete categories can seem antagonistic to them. [K] 

The Diplomatic intellect is heavily focussed upon communication:

…with a Predisposition for the abstract, global and personal, [people expressing Idealist] tend to focus on human potential, ethics, quality of life, metaphysics, and personal growth. With such a focus, they often excel at communication, especially metaphor and imaginative narrative. [B] 

This interest in communicating through metaphor and narrative relates the Diplomatic intellect to the role of the novelist and the playwright. William Shakespeare, George Bernard Shaw and Tennessee Williams are all considered to have expressed the Idealist temperament strongly, not to mention Charlotte and Emily Bronte, James Joyce, Herman Melville, J. D. Salinger, John Steinbeck, Leo Tolstoy and Virginia Woolf.

(Oddly, the horror genre is also linked to the Idealist temperament, although information in this regard is sketchy. Presumably this relates to horror-fantasy and its metaphor-laced symbolic narratives, in the style of Clive Barker or Neil Gaiman) 

Berens summarises the skills of the Diplomatic intellect succinctly:

[People expressing Idealist] tend to be gifted at unifying diverse peoples and helping individuals realize their potential. They build bridges between people through empathy and clarification of deeper issues. They use themse same skills to help people work through difficulties. Thus, they can make excellent mediators, helping people and companies solve conflicts through mutual cooperation. [B] 

In general terms, Diplomatic thinking can be understood as unifying through abstraction. Faced with conflicting viewpoints, the Diplomatic intellect can move to a level of abstraction in order to see how those disparate perspectives are alike, and then express that similarity symbolically, through words or metaphor. The core competence of those expressing the Idealist temperament lies in empathising and harmonising, which can be expressed in a verbal form, such as poetry or storytelling, or in an interpersonal form by building bridges between people, resolving disputes and conflicts, or helping people find their path own path through mentoring and counselling.

Examples of the expression of the Diplomatic intellect include creative careers such as those of the playwright, novelist, poet, musical composer or artist, and interpersonal careers such as counselling, psychology, social work and interpreting and translation. Those exceptional journalists who strive to communicate, and create the demand to resolve, the problems of the world are probably driven by expression of the Idealist temperament. Additionally, many religious roles such as minister, priest, imam and rabbi atttract people who express Idealist.

In the connection with art, the Idealist temperament overlaps with the Artisan temperament (most artists will express both temperaments to some degree); in the connection with psychology there is an overlap with the Rational temperament and in connection with religion, there is an overlap with the Guardian temperament. In this way, the Idealist temperament seems to bridge between the other patterns to some extent. 

3. Motivations 

Those who express the Idealist temperament as their primary pattern generally display a strong desire to uncover hidden meanings in all aspects of their lives:

Wanting to uncover meaning and significance in the world, and trying to understand what they believe is the real nature of things, [the thought and speech of those expressing Idealist] tends to be interpretive, which means they frequently comment how one thing is really something else… [K] 

The meanings being uncovered are not factual or theoretical, but rather impressions derived intuitively:

While [people expressing Rational] trust their reasoning powers, [people expressing Idealist] trust their intuitive powers, their feelings or first impressions about people, not needing to wait for a rationale, or even wanting one, for what they believe… Perhaps [such people] trust their intuition about people so unreservedly because of their extraordinary ability to identify with others, to put themselves in the other’s place. [K] 

Thus the intuition of the person expressing the Idealist pattern leads to empathy:

[The self-esteem of a person expressing Idealist] is greatest when they see themselves and are seen by others as empathic in bonding with people in their circle. [Such people] feel a kind of natural sympathy for mankind, but they base their self-esteem on the empathy they feel with those people closest to them. [K] 

As intuition leads to empathy, empathy leads to a kind of benevolence:

[People expressing Idealist] base their self-respect on their ability to maintain an attitude of benevolence or goodwill towards other people – toward all of existence for that matter. [Such people] are without question filled with good intentions and kind feelings; they have a fierce aversion to animosity of any sort, and they will suppress their feelings of enmity and hostility as best they can. Perhaps this is because [they] have a powerful and ever-present conscience which hurts them deeply whenever they harbour feelings of malice, cruelty, revenge, or other mean-spirited intentions. [K] 

Keirsey perhaps overstates this aspect of the pattern, although a desire to avoid and dissipate conflicts seems to be intimately connected with this temperament:

A divisive, argumentative, competitive atmosphere offends them and brings out their desire to rescue any victims or leave the scene. [B]

Confidence for a person strongly expressing Idealist is drawn from a sense of the authentic:

[The self-confidence of someone expressing Idealist] rests on their authenticity, their genuineness as a person, or put another way, the self-image they present to the world allows for no façade, no mask, no pretence. To be authentic is to have integrity, inner unity, to ring true… [people expressing Idealist] insist on an ever higher standard of authenticity for themselves. [K]

This desire for the authentic also extends to other people:

They place a high value on authenticity and integrity in people, relationships and organisations. They engage in activities because they are meaningful, rather than because they are routine, mandatory, efficient or entertaining. [B] 

Related to these previously identified motivations, someone who strongly expresses the Idealist pattern craves a unique sense of identity:

[People strongly expressing Idealist] devote much of their time to pursuing their own identity, their personal meaning, what they signify – their true Self. It is not, mind you, that they are self-centred, self-serving, or selfish; they focus on the Self of others as surely as on their own. But whether their own or another’s [such people] are centred on the Self, concentrated on it, committed to it… To [such people] Self has a capital “S” and is a special part of the person – a kind of personal essence or core of being, the vital seed of their nature, not unlike the Soul or Spirit of religious thought. [K] 

(Not that all people who express Idealist are religious, of course: it is simply that the language of spirituality lends itself to expression of this concept.)

Berens summarises these themes succinctly:

The [core needs of someone strongly expressing Idealist] are for the meaning and significance that come from having a sense of purpose and working toward some greater good. [Such people] need to have a sense of unique identity. They value unity, self-actualisation and authenticity. [They] prefer cooperative interactions with a focus on ethics and morality. They tend to trust their intuitions and impressions first… [B] 

Thus the nature of the Idealist temperament is an ongoing quest for a unique and authentic sense of identity, and for meaning and significance. Unfortunately, this desire can be difficult or impossible to fulfil, especially in a world which is primarily dominated with the blunt commercial power that is driven by the Guardian pattern, and a harshly critical worldview driven by the Rational pattern. This can leave those who strongly express the Idealist pattern feeling alienated.

4. Problems 

Everyone is stressed by different circumstances; one of the advantages of looking at behaviour in terms of the patterns of Temperament Theory is the capacity to identify different stressing factors that relate to the patterns.

According to Berens, those who express the Idealist temperament strongly are stressed by insincerity, betrayal or a lack of integrity: 

[People expressing Idealist] are stressed by the impersonal and the impervious and can suffer sometimes excruciating alienation in situations where their needs for relationship, significance and esteem are not met. [B] 

Berens view is that when people expressing Idealist becomes stressed by encountering the inauthentic, impersonal or dishonest, they react by disassociating, and hence begin playing roles that feel false to them – thus heightening the stress. Keirsey also makes this observation:

[If people expressing Idealist] somehow undercut their authenticity by being phony or false or insincere, they can be taken over by fear and self-doubt… In extreme cases… this loss of self-confidence can become a truly debilitating fear of the losing of Self entirely… Few [such people] become this lost in inauthenticity, of course, but many live with some vague feelings of uncertainty about their genuineness, some secret doubt about their wholeness. [K] 

Another problem associated with the Idealist pattern is the capacity to allow themselves to be deceived:

[People strongly expressing Idealist tend to be] credulous. They believe in things easily and without reserve – exactly the opposite of their sceptical cousins, [people who express Rational strongly]. [Those expressing Idealist] are really quite innocent in their credulism. They see good everywhere, and in everyone, as if believing that goodness is real and permanent in the world… [K] 

In some respects, this credulity is harmless, but it is easy for someone expressing Idealist to be burned by it. For instance, when such a person encounters a sob-story, they will be inclined to help, thus leaving them vulnerable to those who would prey on such innocence. Still, most people who strongly express this pattern would rather take the risk of being conned than refuse to help a person in need.

Although not strictly a problem, the Idealist temperament seems to lend itself to a mystical outlook: 

Unlike [people expressing Rational], who tend to rationalise their misfortunes and setbacks, seeing them as neutral events relative to one’s individual point-of-view, [those expressing Idealist] are more metaphysical in their explanations, and will usually take one of two enigmatic attitudes when trying to come to terms with life’s difficulties. Some [people who express Idealist] believe that accidents are mystifying and inexplicable – that bad things simply happen, and cannot be accounted for by any rational means… Other [such people] attribute the cause of unhappy events to some power above themselves, not so much to the influence of bad Luck or Divine will (as do, respectively, [those who express Artisan and Guardian), but to more esoteric, mystical causes. [K] 

This mysticism only becomes problematic in so much as it can often place them in conflict with other people – in particular, those who strongly express Rational and do not express Idealist cannot bear the apparently illogical justifications inherent in mysticism, and indeed often feel the need to verbally attack such views when they encounter them. Thus, the person expressing this mystical side of the Idealist temperament may attract conflict which, as mentioned before, can be intolerable to them.

A final, and more serious, problem associated with the Idealist pattern is that their quest for authenticity is effectively insurmountable:

The problem [for people expressing Idealist] is that this ardent wish to be genuine at all times and everywhere actually separates them from the authenticity they demand of themselves, and forces them, to a certain extent, into the very role-playing they want to avoid. [Such people] report over and over that they are subject to an inner voice which urges them to “be real, be authentic”… but with this inner voice in their head, [they] are inevitably caught in a dual role. Instead of the whole-hearted, authentic person they want to be, they are at once director and actor: they are on stage, and, at the same time, they are watching themselves being on stage, and prompting themselves with lines. The irony of this wanting to be authentically themselves is that it often leaves [such people] feeling divided and false, standing to one side and telling themselves to be themselves. [K] 

Perhaps a part of what creates this dual role is the need to walk the line between authenticity and the desire for benevolence:

[Those who express Idealist] are caught in a dilemma: confident of their integrity, yet at the same time devoted to pleasing others, they must walk on a razor’s edge, with authenticity on one side, and moral approval on the other. Learning to reconcile these two often conflicting facets of their self-image is an important and sometimes arduous task for many [such people]. [K] 

This can be especially difficult for someone who expresses Idealist but is drawn away from a desire to help others by different aspects of their personality (the cynicism of the Rational temperament, the desire for freedom of the Artisan temperament, or a highly introverted worldview, for instance). In such a state, the individual may find themselves deeply out of balance, but unable to identify the root of the problem.

Whatever the cause of stress, Berens suggests that those who express Idealist can alleviate the problem by receiving affirmation and nurturing from themselves or from others, or by finding new idealistic quests to pursue. Sadly, when seriously out of balance, it can be almost impossible for such a person to accept affirmation from any source, since they do not feel authentic and therefore suffer from a lack of self-worth. Trapped in this state, the person expressing Idealist can be driven to severe mental imbalance if they do not find a way out of the hole they have dug for themselves. 


The Idealist temperament is defined as abstract affiliation with a focus on the motivations that allow people to be themselves. Those affected by it seek meaning and significance in all aspects of their lives, and strive for authenticity. The Diplomatic intellect associated with this pattern unifies through abstraction, and can use this to see how different perspectives are similar, as well as expressing this similarity in symbolic terms, such as metaphors. Empathy and cooperation are recurrent themes. 

Stressed by conflict, insincerity and all things impersonal, the person expressing the Idealist temperament often finds themselves in extremely conflicted states as they try and balance their need for authenticity with their desire to be benevolent, or at least positive. Trapped between the demands of society and their own need for unique identity, those who express Idealist can ensnare themselves in a terrible emotional oubliette. Yet the Idealist temperament seems to express all that is good and valuable about humanity – fine art, poetry and literature, altruism and spirituality all seem to spring from this pattern of emotional response, which enriches both our lives and our cultures.

Do you recognise yourself in this pattern? Feel free to share your perspective in the comments. Don’t recognise yourself? Check out the other three Temperament patterns and see if they fit you better. For more information, see or check out the books referenced here.

Note: If you have any comments specifically regarding justifications or criticisms of Temperament Theory, please use the comments to the post entitled Justifications and Criticisms, which has been set aside for that express purpose. Thank you!

The opening image is Splash of Colours by Yael Zahavy-Mittelman, which I found here. As ever, no copyright infringement is intended and I'll take the image down if asked.