Emotions Revealed

What is an emotion? How many different emotions are there? Are all emotions universal? The journey towards understanding, whether the knowledge of science or the wisdom of philosophy, is as much about the refinement of the language as it is about experiments and treatises. In the context of emotions, there is still much work to be done in building a coherent framework of terms thanks in part to the generous scope the word ‘emotion’ has acquired. Paul Ekman’s work is a substantial and invaluable step towards achieving this goal.

Ekman’s Emotions Revealed (subtitled ‘Understanding Faces and Feelings’) is the second book that I have read as a direct consequence of Nicole Lazzaro’s GDC talks. This, in many respects, is the underpinning of Nicole’s Four Keys model, which collects patterns of emotions collated from direct observation of players with their favorite games. Despite my love of Nicole’s work, I was rather underwhelmed with Cziksentmihalyi Flow: The Psychology of Optimal Experience which, after presenting a great thesis in the first chapter, spent the rest of its time tediously repeating the same information in different contexts. Ekman’s work is of a far greater pedigree.

I will catalogue the emotions Ekman uses in his (still incomplete) taxonomy of emotions in the footnotes below (for my own future reference). In essence, the book works its way through sets of related emotions examining the key work by other researchers in the field, before moving on to discuss the specific signs that allow emotions to be spotted in other people.

This is the aspect of the book which is most outstanding. Ekman has analysed all the muscles in the face, and identified how these muscles react when different emotions are experienced. He provides a series of facial pictures (some composed digitally) which demonstrate the signs and signals of each emotion in turn. This is astonishing work, like nothing else I have seen in the field, and will doubtless ensure Ekman’s work is remembered for a long time to come.

Not to be underestimated in assessing the importance of this book is the manner in which it completely yet politely destroys the assumption that there are no universal signals to emotions. It recognises that emotional behaviours and triggers vary from culture to culture, but firmly and surely identifies common responses that hold true around the world. Cross-cultural studies are immensely difficult to execute, and Ekman must be soundly lauded for his work in this area.

Ekman’s observes in passing that emotions can override drives which some psychologists have claimed are the most powerful fundamental motives – hunger, sex and the will to survive. This is a significant point, although vastly outside the scope of the book to explore fully. He also observes that when under the influence of an emotion individuals become temporarily incapable of accessing information inconsistent with their current emotional state. The recognition of this refractory state can be a valuable aid to anyone struggling to reach a more balanced emotional state.

Emotions Revealed is not the ultimate scientific reference book on emotions that it could have been, simply because so much of the research in the field is still vastly incomplete. It is nonetheless the most exhaustive and carefully observed guide to emotions that has been seen so far, and is written with the goal of improving people’s understanding of their emotional states which in itself is a worthy goal. Few scientific books combine a self-help perspective with such erudite work. When the ultimate reference book on emotion is finally written, many years down the line, Ekman will be substantially referenced, and warmly remembered.



Emotion: Ekman’s definition of emotion is at the back of the book, and is too complex to reproduce in full. In short: an emotion consists of [1] a set of sensations experienced [2] briefly (longer experiences Ekman considers moods) [3] about something that matters to the person experiencing it. [4] Emotions happen without the experience being chosen consciously; [5] a subconscious appraisal process triggers the emotion. [6] While an emotion is being experienced there is a refractory period during which information inconsistent with the emotional state cannot be accessed. [7] People become consciously aware of an emotion once it has begun. [8] There are universal emotional themes that reflect our evolutionary past, and culturally learned variations which reflect our individual experiences. [9] The desire to experience or not experience an emotion motivates much of our behaviour, and [10] a clear, rapid and universal signal informs others of how an emotional person is feeling.

Mood: if an emotion lasts for hours, Ekman considers this a mood, not an emotion. He deploys separate terms for moods than for emotions.


Non-enjoyable emotions:

1. Sadness and Agony
Sadness: dysphoria, helplessness, hopelessness

 Agony: intense and painful version of sadness; elements of protest
2. Anger

  range of states from annoyance, through frustration to rage
3. Surprise and Fear

 Surprise: short lived response to the unexpected
 Fear: retreat from the threat of harm; physical or psychological
4. Disgust and Contempt

 Disgust: feeling of aversion, repulsion
 Contempt: disdain; experienced towards people or their actions

Similar emotions are grouped together. Separate terms are used to indicate that there is a different sign for display, and differences in the triggering states. Disgust and contempt, for instance, seem related, but have different facial expressions and radically different triggering states. They appear to be two separate emotions.

Enjoyable emotions:

1-5. Sensory pleasures
 Visual pleasure
 Tactile pleasre
 Olfactory pleasure
 Auditory pleasure
 Gustatory pleasure
6. Amusement
 from slight amusement, through to intense amusement with laughter and tears
7. Contentment

 the feeling that there is nothing more that need be done
8. Excitement

 response to novelty or challenge
9. Relief

 felt immediately after a strong emotion subsides
10. Wonderment

 feeling of being overwhelmed by the improbable and incomprehensible
11. Ecstasy (or Bliss)

 intense self-transcendent rapture
12. Fiero

 triumph over adversity, commonly seen in sporting victories
13. Naches

 pride in the accomplishment of a child or student (or of a parent or tutor)
14. Elevation

 uplifting feeling in response to unexpected kindness and compassion
15. Gratitude

 appreciation for an altruistic gift that provides benefit
16. Shadenfreude

 delight in the suffering of enemies (in the context of play, of our friends)

Regrettably, the bulk of the book is concerned with the non-enjoyable emotions, and only a single chapter is devoted to these sixteen emotions. There is clearly much research still to be done.

Emotions not covered by this book:

1. Guilt (no clear signal)
2. Shame (no clear signal)
3. Embarrassment (no clear signal – blushing cannot be observed in dark-skinned people)
4. Envy (no clear signal) 

Not covered, and not considered emotions:

5. Jealousy (Ekman does not consider this to be an emotion, but an emotional scene or plot; it is expressible in terms of the other emotions)
6. Love (Ekman does not consider parental or romantic love to be an emotion on the following grounds: emotions can be very brief, but love endures) 

Emotions Revealed: Understanding Faces and Feelings is published by Phoenix, ISBN 0-75381-765-9.

A Theory of Fun for Game Design

With a title such as A Theory of Fun for Game Design, one cannot help but suspect strange tensions at work in Raph Koster's book. 'Fun' and 'theory' sit together somewhat uncomfortably, each shuffling their feet as if uncertain they have come to the right place. And yet, after relaxing, perhaps sharing a few drinks and anecdotes, suddenly it seems that the two are getting along famously - although they never quite manage to speak quite the same language. Such is the schizophrenic joy of A Theory of Fun - it combines a methodical approach with a playful freedom from excessive seriousness resulting in a book unlike any other on the subject of games.

The first thing one notices about the book is it's unsusual structure, as it has text on the verso pages, and (mostly) cartoons on the recto pages. For the most part, the annotated cartoons provide a superlight version of the main content of the book, while generously complete notes (collected as an appendix) provide more detailed annotations where appropriate. The result is a book that can be read in three ways - focussing on the cartoons and using the text for more details, focussing on the text and using the cartoons for illustration, and using the text and the notes in concert for a more scholarly approach.

Koster's view is that fun is another word for learning. However, in order to support this view, the author becomes forced into excluding any aspect of the word 'fun' that does not fit with his model. Koster is completely upfront about this - he suggests that taking a wider view of fun "renders the word meaningless", and therefore focuses only on a specific definition of fun as "the act of mastering a problem mentally". Since this is not how the rest of the world uses the word 'fun', I personally feel he would have done better to coin a different phrase rather than co-opting fun into a context that does not fit with how the word is conventionally used (this betrays my adherence to Wittgenstein's thinking on language yet again).

Still, since this linguistic sleight of hand is performed honestly and openly, there is not really a problem. However, I'm going to use the term Kfun (for 'Koster fun') to refer to the subset of fun discussed in the book in an effort to disambiguate the language.

The author explores kfun in a thorough and detailed fashion, looking at what games are good at teaching, differences in individual ability (solely through the perspective of intelligence and learning styles because of the focus on kfun), problems that result, and coming round ultimately to looking at issues of representation, ethics and ultimately the cultural role games may aspire towards.  Because of the brisk pace, some issues are not examined in much detail, but conversely the book covers a vast multitude of topics making it an excellent primer on the subject of games.

Again, because of the volume of material covered, there are inevitable errors and ommisions. These vary from the trivial to the debatable.

An example of the former (trivial errors): Koster claims that Centipede is not really that different from Galaxian. But the attack waves in Galaxian are static, and nothing the player does affects them, whereas in Centipede, shooting the Centipede leaves mushrooms which alter the attack patterns in a dynamic and controllable fashion, resulting in a much harder game to master. (The obvious rebuttal to this sort of minutiae is "who gives a damn", of course).

An example of the latter (debatable errors): Koster claims "From a strict evolutionary point of view, cheating is a winning strategy." There is no reference to this in the notes, so I assume this is just his opionion - I believe he is in error. Although ecologies can support a certain amount of 'cheating', this does not equate to cheating being a winning strategy. Cuckoos lay eggs in other bird's nests (a form of cheating) - but this does not allow cuckoos to out perform other bird species - if there were only cuckoos, they would be royally screwed as brood parasites must inevitably be in the minority. Furthermore, it is widely accepted that in a social context the most successful categories are Tit for Tat and Tit for Two Tat - which outperform every cheating strategy. Koster's claim that "Duelists who shoot first while their opponents are pacing off are far more likely to reproduce" is flawed: four people attend a formal duel, the two duelists plus two seconds. It is hard to devise a cheating strategy for a formal duel that will allow the cheat to reintegrate into their society and breed.

There are also points in which I believe he misrepresents other people's theories. For instance, Koster equates Lazarro's Hard Fun with Csikszentmihalyi's flow in an inaccurate manner. I believe Koster might have been at the same Lazarro GDC presentation as I was - in which she inadvertently mentioned flow and provided an impromptu explanation while talking about Hard Fun. But this was not because flow refers only to Hard Fun. However, since Lazarro still hasn't written a book (I hope she will address this soon!) we only have her paper on the subject to refer to. Besides, Koster's conclusion that fun isn't flow is broadly accurate and his conclusion that flow isn't kfun is completely accurate, so in some respects it is not a problem. 

However, these sort of issues are the result of the wide reach of the book which covers so much it is inevitable that a few imperfections creep in. These small and often insignificant cracks are more than compensated for by both a wealth of useful information, and super cute alligator cartoons.

The book does not really provide the theory of fun that some may feel is promised in the title - but then, I don't believe it is a coincidence that Koster chose to call it 'A Theory of Fun' and not 'The Theory of Fun'. Koster presents a theory of kfun, and he explores it thoroughly. It leads him to some conclusions that I find hard to agree with, because in accepting the value of the fun of learning (kfun) he rules out to some extent having fun just for the sake of it which I believe may be premature.

None of this actually matters, because at it's heart this isn't a book about a theory of kfun at all (although this is the central device by which it progresses). A Theory of Fun for Game Design is a highly personal and empassioned defence of the value of games and of the games industry. The book is framed in the context of a discussion between Koster and his grandfather, who asked if Raph was proud of what he did, and throughout the book the presence of Koster's children can also be felt. There is an intimacy to this aspect of the book which I feel is its greatest strength.

I believe there are two basic battles going on right now - one is for the defence of the games industry against those who would muzzle it or inhibit its growth (and this is where Koster ebulliently leaps to games' defence) and one is for the industry to expand its reach to meet the needs of a wider audience (which is where Koster's co-worker Sheri Grainer Ray has staunchly positioned herself). I personally feel more driven to fight on the second front, but I have great respect for those who have chosen to take to the field of the first.

Erudite, passionate and accessible, A Theory of Fun for Game Design is a unique and engaging book which suffers from a certain schizophrenia as to whether it is talking to the layman or the professional but somehow manages to make this confusion work to its advantage. It is essential reading for anyone interested in games, and an ardent defence of the value of games which is both apposite and timely.

A Theory of Fun for Game Design is published by Paraglyph Press, ISBN 1-932111-97-2.

The Seven Basic Plots

I recently finished chunking through Christopher Booker’s The Seven Basic Plots (subtitled, ‘Why we tell stories’). It would be not entirely accurate to say I read the whole thing, all 705 large pages, each with very small print - I skimmed over large sections of it, which is easy to do as it contains hundreds of descriptions of the plots of stories and it is possible to get at Booker’s ideas without reading all of them. For anyone wishing to attempt to read this book, I recommend only reading plot summaries of stories you already know. It saves a lot of time.

This book has received a lot of negative reviews, largely because Booker bases his entire treatise on Jungian psychology without noticing that the world at large no longer holds Jung in very high esteem. (Some would say Jung has been ‘discredited’, which is the modern version of declaring something to be ‘heresy’ - reflecting the different forces at work in the modern zeitgeist).

However, once you accept that this is where Booker is writing from, his ideas are reasonable and potentially useful. In terms of advancing the boundaries of modern knowledge, I feel he doesn’t really take us any further than Joseph Campbell - but his models are perfectly workable. A model, after all, is just a model, and not truth. In my opinion, you can't have too many models for looking at the world.

Booker’s prose style is very readable, and his plot summaries are wonderfully written if occasionally trivially inaccurate - but sadly he doesn’t seem to know how to get a point across concisely. For my own benefit, I wanted to catalogue Booker’s basic plot patterns, and so I’m providing them here in case they are of interest to anyone else. These aren’t my ideas, so don’t shoot the messenger!

For reference, Booker believes we tell stories as a mechanism of passing a model for life from generation to generation; that in essence, all stories are archetypal family dramas, and that their core message is that we must resist selfish evil (Booker doesn’t use this term, preferring ‘ego-centred’, according to his Jungian framework). I find this a lovely belief system, although it will likely be quite unpalatable to those who idolise testability.

What follows are the skeletons of his ‘seven basic plots’. The word ‘plot’ as used by Booker may give people pause, as he does not use it to mean the literal events of the story, but rather the symbolic events of the story, and note that not every story follows the template perfectly. In this regard, I prefer the term ‘meta-plot’ - indicating a degree of abstraction between how we usually use plot, and how it is employed in the book. Also, I am purposefully providing only the minimum amount of detail - I am recording it here for reference, I do not expect these notes to be wholly sufficient to understand Booker’s models. If you want any more information, please check the book rather than asking me.

My thanks to Ben for loaning me the book in the first place.

The Basic Meta-plot

Most of the meta-plots are variations on the following pattern:

  1. Anticipation Stage
    The call to adventure, and the promise of what is to come.
  2. Dream Stage
    The heroine or hero experiences some initial success - everything seems to be going well, sometimes with a dreamlike sense of invincibility.
  3. Frustration Stage
    First confrontation with the real enemy. Things begin to go wrong.
  4. Nightmare Stage
    At the point of maximum dramatic tension, disaster has erupted and it seems all hope is lost.
  5. Resolution
    The hero or heroine is eventually victorious, and may also be united or reunited with their ‘other half’ (a romantic partner).

There are some parallels with Campbell’s Heroic Monomyth, but his pattern is more applicable to mythology than to stories in general.

Overcoming the Monster (and the Thrilling Escape from Death)

Examples: Perseus, Theseus, Beowulf, Dracula, War of the Worlds, Nicholas Nickleby, The Guns of Navarone, Seven Samurai/The Magnificent Seven, James Bond, Star Wars: A New Hope.

Meta-plot structure:

  1. Anticipation Stage (The Call)
  2. Dream Stage (Initial Success)                   
  3. Frustration Stage (Confrontation)
  4. Nightmare Stage (Final Ordeal)
  5. Miraculous Escape (Death of the Monster)

Rags to Riches

Examples: Cinderella, Aladdin, Jane Eyre, Great Expectations, David Copperfield 
Dark Version: Le Rouge et Le Noir (1831), What Makes Sammy Run? (1940)

Meta-plot structure:

  1. Initial Wretchedness at Home (The Call)
  2. Out into the World (Initial Success)
  3. The Central Crisis
  4. Independence (Final Ordeal)
  5. Final Union, Completion and Fulfilment

The Quest

Examples: The Odyssey, Pilgrim’s Progress, King Solomon’s Mines, Watership Down

Meta-plot structure:

  1. The Call (Oppressed in the City of Destruction)
  2. The Journey (Ordeals of the Hero/Heroine & Companions)
    May include some or all of the following:
    a. Monsters
    b. Temptations
    c. The Deadly Opposites
    d. The Journey to the Underworld
  3. Arrival and Frustration
  4. The Final Ordeals
  5. The Goal (Kingdom, Other Half or Elixir won)

Voyage & Return

Examples: Alice in Wonderland, Goldilocks and the Three Bears, Orpheus, The Time Machine, Peter Rabbit, Brideshead Revisited, The Rime of the Ancient Mariner, Gone with the Wind, The Third Man (1948)

Meta-plot structure:

  1. Anticipation Stage (‘Fall’ into the Other World)
  2. Initial Fascination (Dream Stage)
  3. Frustration Stage
  4. Nightmare Stage
  5. Thrilling Escape and Return


Comedy is dealt with by a less rigid structure. In essence, the comedy meta-plot is about building an absurdly complex set of problems which then miraculously resolve at the climax. There is much discussion of how the comedy plot has developed over time:

    Stage one: Aristophanes
    Stage two: ‘The New Comedy’ (comedy becomes a love story)
    Stage three: Shakespeare (plot fully developed)
    Comedy as real life: Jane Austen
    The plot disguised: Middlemarch, War and Peace
    The plot burlesqued: Gilbert & Sullivan, Oscar Wilde

Meta-plot structure:

  1. Under the Shadow
    A little world in which people are under the shadow of confusion, uncertainty and frustration and are shut up from one another.
  2. Tightening the Knot
    The confusion gets worse until the pressure of darkness is at its most acute and everyone is in a nightmarish tangle.
  3. Resolution
    With the coming to light of things not previously recognised, perceptions are dramatically changed. Shadows are dispelled, the situation is miraculously transformed and the little world is brought together in a state of joyful union.


Examples: Macbeth, The Picture of Dorian Gray, Carmen, Bonnie & Clyde, Jules et Jim, Anna Karenina, Madame Bovary, Julius Caesar

Meta-plot structure:

  1. Anticipation Stage (Greed or Selfishness)
  2. Dream Stage
  3. Frustration Stage
  4. Nightmare Stage
  5. Destruction or Death Wish Stage


Examples: Sleeping Beauty, The Frog Prince, Beauty and the Beast, The Snow Queen, A Christmas Carol, The Secret Garden, Peer Gynt

Meta-plot structure:

  1. Under the Shadow
    A young hero or heroine falls under the shadow of a dark power
  2. The Threat Recedes
    Everything seems to go well for a while - the threat appears to have receded.
  3. The Threat Returns
    Eventually the threat approaches again in full force, until the hero or heroine is seen imprisoned in a state of living death.
  4. The Dark Power Triumphant
    The state of living death continues for a long time when it seems the dark power has completely triumphed.
  5. Miraculous Redemption
    If the imprisoned person is a heroine, redeemed by the hero; if a hero, by a young woman or child.

Dark Versions

All of the above plots have dark versions, in which the ‘complete happy ending’ is never achieved because of some problem. The only exception is Tragedy, which is already the ‘dark’ version.

New Plots

Two additional plots are presented which are outside of the basic seven listed above. Note that the existence of general patterns of plot is not intended to mean that no other plots are possible.

Rebellion Against ‘The One’
A solitary hero/heroine finds themselves being drawn into a state of resentful, mystified opposition to some immense power, which exercises total sway over the world of the hero. Initially they feel they are right and the mysterious power is at fault, but suddenly the hero/heroine is confronted by the power in its awesome omnipotence. The rebellious hero/heroine is crushed and forced to recognise that their view had been based only on a very limited subjective perception of reality. They accept the power’s rightful claim to rule.

Example: The Book of Job
Dark version: Brave New World, Nineteen Eighty-Four

The Mystery
Begins by posing a riddle, usually through the revelation that some baffling crime has been committed. Central figure unravels the riddle.

Examples: Bel and the Dragon, Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, Agatha Christie



In addition to patterns of plots, there is a pattern of characters provided according to Jungian principles. These archetypal characters are as follows:

Negative (centred on Jungian Ego i.e. "evil"):

    Dark Father, Tyrant or Dark Magician
    Dark Mother, Dark Queen or Hag
    Dark Rival or Dark Alter-Ego
    Dark Other Half or Temptress

Positive (centred on Jungian Self i.e. "good"):

    Light Father, Good King or Wise Old Man
    Light Mother, Good Queen or Wise Old Woman
    Light Alter-Ego or Friend and Companion
    Light Other Half (light anima/animus)

Note: Booker uses ‘witch’ where I use ‘hag’, for reasons that will be apparent to most readers.

Three other archetypes are referenced:       

    The Child
    The Animal Helper
    The Trickster


Additional Concepts

The Complete Happy Ending
In the regular versions of the meta-plots, if all that is ego-centred becomes centred instead on the Self (i.e. if all characters are redeemed), the result is a 'complete happy ending'. In the dark versions of the story, the ending is generally tragic and disasterous - both are considered to be following the same meta-plot. It is also possible for stories to contain elements of both approaches.

The Unrealised Value
The chief dark figure signals to us the shadowy, negative version of precisely what the hero or heroine will eventually have to make fully positive in themselves if they are to emerge victorious and attain 'the complete happy ending'. Therefore, the villain metaphorically represents what the hero or heroine will conquor both within themselves, and in the world of the story.

Above and Below the Line
In general, (and especially in comedy) there is a dividing line in effect. Above the line is the established social order, and below the line are the servants,  ‘inferior’ or shadow elements. The problem originates ‘above the line’ (e.g. with tyranny) but the road to liberation always lies ‘below the line’ in the ‘inferior’ level.

Below the line can also be represented as a ‘shadow realm’, containing the potential for wholeness. In the conclusion of the story, elements may ‘emerge from the shadows’ to provide resolution.

The Seven Basic Plots is published by Continuum, ISBN-0-8264-5209-4.