The state of the art player model that draws from emotion research is Nicole Lazzaro’s Four Keys model, which I have touched upon before. “Hard Fun” in this model is associated chiefly with the emotion of fiero (the emotion of victory) which I have discussed before in the context of Roger Callois’ agon (competitive) pattern of play. Lazzaro notes that “Hard Fun” is accompanied by anger and boredom, and this forms the basis of the pattern.
Up until recently, I have primarily been thinking about fiero in the context of competitive play – what I have referred to as “hard agon”. There is no doubt that this is of key importance to the videogame industry, and indeed, many people who work in the industry are incapable of interpreting games in any other context (presumably because this is the kind of play they and their friends enjoy, and thus they fail to recognise that other play styles exist). However, recent observations have given me a new perspective on the issue.
Firstly, let us examine the competitive
play pattern, “hard agon”. In competition, the goal is victory and hence fiero,
which is probably correlated to a release of certain endorphins in the brain when a
challenging goal is achieved. Hard agon is thus goal-oriented play, and the
other emotions Lazzaro cites in connection with fiero connect with this: boredom
results from the necessary slack in any videogame (for instance, retracing
one’s steps, or getting lost by failing to spot the way forward), that is, from
losing sight of the goal, while anger (in the form of frustration) results
from encountering barriers that block the completion of the goal, or (which is
part of the same response) as a result of the player’s perceived inadequacy or
poor performance. Since to produce a big payoff of fiero once must perceive (but not necessarily experience) a
struggle, this frustration is nearly essential to the ultimate reward of fiero.
The more the player struggles against the game, the bigger the emotional
However, there is a flip side to this. While many gamers hobbyists thrive on this pattern, mass market players do not necessarily share this obsession. It is not that such players do not enjoy fiero – this is a universally enjoyable emotion – it is rather that when playing videogames they will not tolerate the frustration that almost by definition will precede it.
When a competitive athlete feels the game
slipping away from them, the frustration (anger) motivates them to step their
game up – to push harder towards victory. A player who does not enjoy
competitive play (and this represents a far greater proportion of players in
the mass market than is usually assumed) rejects any game which tries to evoke
this response in them: in fact, such players may not even experience anger in
response to the barriers – instead experiencing either confusion (because they
do not understand how the game is played) or mild depression (sadness) at what
feels like their own inadequacy. Such a player stops playing, and likely
concludes that videogames are not for them.
Lazzaro does not connect excitement to fiero, since she places excitement and relief into a separate pattern “Serious Fun” – however, I question to some extent the validity of this exclusion. While the “Serious Fun” pattern is certainly valid (many puzzle games evoke this potent combination of excitement and relief), it is very difficult to find examples of competitive play that do not evoke excitement as a precursor to fiero. Indeed, I would go to say so far that breaking this combination is practically impossible: one cannot achieve a payoff of fiero unless one is already in an appropriate state of arousal. Excitement correlates with the hormone adrenalin (or epinephrine), while relief probably represents a small release of endorphins (quite possibly different endorphins to those I hypothesise in relation to fiero). It follows, then, that the beginning of the competitive play pattern is excitement, which is usually then heightened by anger to achieve a big payoff of fiero.
Now let us look at fiero in an entirely
different context – that of Caillois' alea, the chance play pattern. In games of
chance, fiero is also a key emotion; if you watch gamblers, you will see the
same tell-tale signs of fiero (screwing up of the face, raising of the hands in
victory) when a gambler pulls off the big win. However, in games of chance,
Lazzaro’s accompanying emotions of boredom and frustration do not occur. The
only other similarity with the competitive play pattern is that excitement is
once again the precursor to fiero – the payoff of fiero does not occur unless
the player is anticipating the possibility of victory or success, which
necessitates some excitement.
An examination of the emotional patterns in
connection with games of chance shows that there is something of a sequence
involved: the player knows or discovers that they could be about to win (or
gain great advantage towards winning) and experiences excitement. When the
situation resolves, they experience either fiero in the event that they got
lucky, or disappointment (sadness) in the event that they were unlucky. There
is no frustration, because the player is not directly responsible for the
outcome – in the competitive pattern, the player becomes angry because they
could have done better; frustration spurs them to try again, but harder. In the
chance pattern, the outcome lies solely in the hands of fate, so there is
nothing to provoke frustration – failure instead causes varying degrees of
disappointment depending upon the relative cost of that loss.
To demonstrate this, consider the experience of play in a set-collection game such as rummy or mah jong. Think back to your most intense experiences of playing such games. When your hand is nearly complete – a few cards or tiles are needed to win – you become emotionally aroused as you draw your next card; you feel excitement because you know this card could allow you to win. When you see the card and it is not the card you need, you feel the mild sadness of disappointment. But if the card you see if the one you need to win – success! You flush with fiero as the enjoyment of victory hits you. The payoff may be less than with the anger-enhanced fiero of competitive play, but it is nonetheless highly satisfying (and if a sufficient sum of money has been wagered, the fiero may even be greater).
It is possible that you don’t quite
recognise yourself in this pattern – rather than sadness in the event of not
drawing the winning card, you might instead experience mild anger. If
this is your experience of such games, I put it to you that your native play
style favours competitive play – so much so that you bring elements of the
competitive play pattern even into games of chance. In this event, it is quite
likely that if the choice of game were up to you, you would favour a game with
less elements of chance and more opportunities for direct competition – this
doesn’t guarantee that you are a gamer hobbyist, but the odds are greatly in
favour of this interpretation.
There is also another form of the chance pattern that occurs in games in which the player is charged with the task of surviving as long as possible, for instance, Tetris. Here, Lazzaro’s “Serious Fun” pattern is more apposite: the player experiences excitement as the tension of the situation heightens (and the body produces adrenalin in response), and relief when they pull themselves out of the worst scrapes. Because the play is continuous with no express goal, i.e. process-oriented, there is no channel for fiero – although one can certainly reorganise such games to include a goal and thus allow for fiero. It is an open question whether doing so would widen the audience for such a game, or narrow it.
Notice also that Lazzaro's “Serious Fun” matches Caillois' ilinx pattern (vertigo), as experienced in a snowboarding game, for instance. Here, the player loses themselves in the process-oriented experience and also experiences excitement and relief, but since there is also a goal (simply to reach the foot of the mountain, if your skills are weak, or to beat other competitors if your skills are strong) there may also be fiero. If the player is focused on the goal, they may experience anger if some mishap befalls them, otherwise they will likely experience the mild sadness of disappointment instead.
What we see here are three very different patterns of emotional response, all relating to similar mechanisms:
- In the competitive play pattern (hard agon) excitement is a precursor to fiero, which is heightened in the event that anger precedes the eventual attainment of victory.
- In the goal-oriented chance play pattern (goal alea) excitement is a precursor to the resolution of a major instance of random resolution, which results either in fiero in the event of success or sadness in the event of failure.
- In the process-oriented play pattern (process alea or ilinx) excitement occurs as a result of increasing tension within the game space, which results in either relief in the event of escape from a difficult situation, or sadness in the event of failure.
Notice that the differences between the three chance patterns are firstly whether the reward is fiero or relief – which I
hypothesise are both linked to particular endorphins, although identifying underlying biological mechanisms doesn't necessary add anything to the descriptions - and secondly whether the experience of failure is anger or sadness.
I noted previously how a competitive player
might bring their preferred play pattern into a game of chance, experiencing
frustration where others might experience disappointment. I also noted how a
player who did not favour competition might experience sadness in place of
anger when exposed to the competitive play pattern. These observations suggest
a particular hypothesis:
Players naturally prefer either competitive play or non-competitive play (including but not restricted to chance play). Those that prefer competitive play are more likely to experience anger in the event of setbacks, while those who do not are more likely to experience sadness.
This hypothesis is readily testable using
Ekman’s facial expression taxonomy (FACS), and if validated would be additional
evidence for my general hypothesis that different people prefer different play
styles, which I consider at this point to be fairly self-evident but not yet proven to a
sufficient rigorous scientific standard in order to qualify as a theory.
As the videogames industry reaches further
and further into the mass market, the old assumptions become less and less useful.
Publishers who expect to reach a casual market must abandon to some extent their
employees' traditional assumptions of what constitutes a videogame, which almost without
exception consists of said employees projecting their personal play preferences for competitive play onto a wider
audience who may not share this bias. The enormous popularity of chance-based
puzzle games such as the Bejewelled variants demonstrates this
distinction, as does the phenomenal success of Nintendogs – an entirely
non-competitive game which has sold 16 million units, tying or exceeding the
sales of the most popular Grand Theft Auto game.
Understanding emotions of play is a crucial
new aspect of game design, which goes hand-in-hand with understanding the diversity of play
styles. The sooner the games industry wakes up to this commercial reality, the
sooner we can achieve a more stable base to the market.