The Mandate of Heaven
Civil Disobedience (1): Thoreau

Emotions of Play Revisited

Victory Play evokes many emotions, including excitement, relief, anger and fiero – the emotion of triumph over adversity. But what are the relationships between these emotions?

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 reward. 

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.

Dice_01 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. 


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Am I unusual? I'm a player who:

- Eschews entirely chance-based games with no element of skill, as I *hate* losing;

- Much prefers easy fun to hard fun in any game, as I *hate* losing;

- Hides (and tries to dampen) my underlying competitiveness in almost everything I do, as I *hate* losing.

I also *hate* losing work I've put into a game. Steel Battalion is a superb game, I love mechs... but I won't play it beyond the first couple of levels, because it has permanent pilot death and it gets very hard very fast.

I get very little fiero from winning a game. I try hard to avoid competitive play. I experience frustration, rather than disappointment or sadness, at losing, and tend to withdraw from the situation that caused the loss. I experience very little excitement in play - when grouped on WoW, for example, I've had comments that I sound like a test pilot on voice chat, win or lose.

I don't think I match any of these categories; am I unusual, or am I an example of yet another kind of player?

I identified, or could identify the experiences of other people I've witnessed, in almost every single line of this post. At times it was almost like you were reading my thoughts with what you said next, it rang so true. Truely excellent and fascinating stuff Chris! :D

Peter: you ask "am I unusual?" - well, yes and no. In your description I find a player whose natural play response is competitive, but who does not enjoy this natural play response! Sounds crazy, but it's not - in fact, I recognise an element of this in myself. I stopped playing LaserQuest in University because it brought out the competitive side in myself which I really didn't like. (You may remember that several of us played in tournaments for a while).

I suspect there are many people who share this pattern - we sometimes find people saying they don't play videogames because they feel too competitive; interviewing these people tends to reveal a situation similar to your own - they have a natural competitive response, but they don't like what it does to them.

(I hypothesise this occurs primarily in introverts who express Guardian as a secondary pattern - I suspect the competitive pattern may correlate with Guardian i.e. Judging in Myers-Briggs, but when other patterns are stronger this becomes an unwelcome influence.)

However, it is rare to find someone resistant to their competitive side who doesn't experience much fiero on completing games! But since you experience little excitement, that might explain why your fiero falls flat. This aspect - feeling little excitement - is unusual in my experience.

I'm curious: do you get fiero from other experiences? Or do you not have much fiero in your life?

Rik: many thanks for the kind words, Rik! Some of the ideas in this piece are still rough around the edges, but I believe I hit close to the mark all the same.

Best wishes!

[Note change in identity - I finally signed up for a TypePad account]

I'm curious: do you get fiero from other experiences? Or do you not have much fiero in your life?

Little if any - it's a response I recognise in others, but not one I appear to have myself. This may be genetic, as my father and paternal grandfather both appear to show little to no strong emotion.

Hmm. If that's the case - I don't get the payoff of fiero (see, I closed the HTML properly this time!) - that might be a good reason why I don't like hard fun. I get all the negatives from repeated failure, but little or no reward from the eventual success. I certainly recognise myself in *that* pattern!

(And, yes, I remember LQ. I still enjoy the odd game, although the Manchester site has closed down and I now wheeze my overweight way round the Trafford Centre site. It's a little funny, as most of the vict^Wother players are kids, who view me as no threat at all until they've seen me come top of the board a couple of times!)

If fiero is linked to a specific endorphin, it's plausible that there could be a genetic factor - I don't say that very often. :) People rush to genetics too rapidly for an explanation in my opinion.

The image of you slaughtering kids in the Trafford Centre LQ site brightens my day. :)

The image of you slaughtering kids in the Trafford Centre LQ site brightens my day. :)

Virtual slaughter, please. Much as physical slaughter might be desired or even warranted in some cases, I'll settle for 10 points and no warrant for my arrest.

I disagree about the games of chance not having a sense of frustration.

Even though you know you have no control over it, there's a sense that sometimes you "feel lucky".

There can be frustration that "luck" isn't going your way.

I identified more with Peter than most of the article, though I still think there is definitely something to the theory presented, if only that we need to map more preference types...

I'm somewhat different though that I can't stand a game of pure chance. I hated one of the Mario Party games my friends got hooked on because it would take hours to play and at any time a roll of the dice could change things making the input leading up to it pointless.

I used to play lots of FPSes but got really sick of the "Bang - you're dead!" mechanic, especially playing against essentially career players who refine it to a fine art and annihilate all those who don't. I still enjoy competitive games like fighting, and racing games, but mostly I like games where the activity itself is intrinsically rewarding and motivating, and ideally allows me to play at my own level (like the above two, and) - puzzle games, rhythm games, sandboxes, mahjong - I see it as much more strategy than chance, and dungeon crawlers. I lean hard away from games like tactics/stragegy games where you can put in an hour to play a game and lose in the end making it wasted effort, or a shooter where you'll end up backtracking and wandering around because the path forward is hard to find.

I think in the end it comes down to Csikszentmihalyi's concept of "flow," which seems to be the holy grail of gameplay - but of course it will be reached in different ways by different people.

Anon: "I disagree about the games of chance not having a sense of frustration. There can be frustration that 'luck' isn't going your way."

I agree that players do experience frustration in games of chance, but I hypothesise (above) that when this happens it is a factor of the player's natural competitive response. So I suppose what I am claiming here is that the less competitive players will show fewer signs of frustration in games of chance.

Aka: thanks for sharing your viewpoint here. Like Peter, you seem to show a need for a high degree of competence in what you are playing, thus avoiding games in which you feel less in control (including feeling out-of-control because of chance factors).

I certainly agree that games are powerful tools for inducing flow, but flow by itself is inadequate explanation - since what determines the player's ability to enter a state of flow depends upon a great many factors. It seems also that different players are looking for different experiences within the flow channel - the competitive fiero-seeking player is operating near the "top" of the flow channel (tipping into frustration), while other players are more comfortable at or below the midline of the flow channel. I think this also relates to this competitive theme - competitive players are playing closer to the top of the flow channel.

A game that induces flow in a certain person will be described as having "great gameplay" by that person, but it could be entirely useless at inducing flow in a different person. It is for this reason that I am focussing my research work on play needs and play styles (the differences between players) rather than focussing on flow, per se.

Csikszentmihalyi has already demonstrated that any human activity can be modelled in terms of flow; now I feel we need to expand our understanding of how games induce that state in players.

Thanks for the comments!

Absolutely fascinating stuff and I think your arguments are very strong.

Yet I wonder: Shouldn't it follow that frequent game players are less affected by doing badly than infrequent game players?

I am working on a small-scale study where I map players' rating of a game to their performance, and it basically seems to say the opposite: Doing badly is experienced more negatively by those who play video games every day, but breezing through a game without failing is experienced more negatively by those who play a few times a week.

Does that contradict your argument?

Dr. Juul: a great pleasure to have you drop by!

Your research seems to suggest that regular videogame players are more sensitive to failure, which might tally with my claims here. But then you also say that 'breezing through' is experienced more negatively by 'lighter' players (albeit players who play a few times a week, so we're still talking about regular players, just less dedicated players) - which doesn't necessarily tally.

A negative response to 'breezing through' is presumably correlated with player boredom; does your research then indicate that daily videogame players are less sensitive to boredom? Lighter players might be more sensitive to boredom because they play less and therefore expect more from their experiences - but I am only speculating.

The hypothesis I suggest above is independent of frequency of play - I think in many respects it would need a separate study to validate or otherwise.

When is your latest research published? I'd love to look over it.

Thanks for dropping by!

I agree with most of this article, but I don't think that developers can afford to be lazy when they're developing hard agon. Not every difficult task in a video game is rewarding, even for a masochist like myself, and I don't think this can be explained merely by level of difficulty- that this was merely slightly above my pain threshold.

Rather, I think this is explained by Raph Koster's a Theory of Fun for game design- the fun of hard agon primarily lies in the learning. A difficult game forces the player to become better, to learn the system, and master it. Thus, in addition to being difficult, a game needs to allow a platform for the player to master the system, and then demonstrate their mastery.

James: thanks for the comment! You are correct that developing hard agon need not be easy - in fact, to produce a top-of-the-range game in this space requires a lot of careful tuning.

However, I reject Koster's Theory of Fun on the following grounds (although I greatly enjoyed the book):

From Koster:

1. Koster's theory is that learning is fun.
2. Koster's theory of fun rejects visceral experiences as fun
3. Koster asks that people who have mastered a game stop playing it.

From a cognitive science basis:

A. all experience can be seen as learning; saying that fun is learning/learning is fun becomes a weak claim (new experiences are fun because novelty is entertaining, but that does not make new experiences the basis of fun)
B. by rejecting visceral fun, Koster rejects many forms of fun that are precisely what many people think of as fun (for instance, under Koster's system rollercoasters are not fun). This is his central mistake in my opinion: he narrows the field to exclude cases that disconfirm his hypothesis.

A & B refute (1) & (2).

From observation of the gaming audience:

C. Many players do not stop playing a game they have mastered. Often, they continue to enjoy it, nearly indefinitely (e.g. mass market Tetris players, as well as Sudoku players etc.)
D. Our first audience model (DGD1) shows that players who express the Rational temperament are more interested in understanding the gameplay than other players.
E. Our informal study of game designers shows that almost all game designers express the Rational temperament.

Since (3) opposes the observation C, I deduce from D and E that Koster is in part projecting his own Rational bias onto the audience as a whole, which also helps explain (2).

Games are excellent tools for learning, but this is not the same as equating learning and fun. The claim that learning and fun are equivalent doesn't match up to my observations, therefore I reject it.

Rather, "learning as fun" seems to correlate with the expression of the Rational temperament in game players.

Well, that was a ragged description, but I hope it is intelligible. :)

Best wishes!

I would agree in part with your refutation of Koster, but a few points:

"all experience can be seen as learning; saying that fun is learning/learning is fun becomes a weak claim" - this is true, but the claim can be strengthened when you consider the various types and structure of learning. I think what Koster was getting at was not such a bare statement as above and the way games structure the learning is very important. Most experiences don't have this carefully structured learning.
In fact, thinking about it, you should know this better than anyone, so why the cavalier dismissal?

On to B)...I think this (visceral vs cerebral) is a valid split when discussing how games give fun. After all, a visceral experience is fun because it floods the system with (short-term) drugs, and (I believe) that physiological process is much better understood than the one behind the 'games = learning = fun'. So if its more straightforward and better researched, then there's less need to write a cartoon book explaining it. It was a natural split for Koster, but its true if he claims his theory applies to ALL games then he's doing his readers a disservice.

Finally, on the subject of mastership, I don't recall what Koster said, but in general this phrase does not imply a cessation of learning. The novelty changes shape, but in a game like Tetris the change is miniscule, since right from the start you've already seen most of the games' coarse-grained variety.

I don't think I'm outright contradicting you here, but there's more to the argument than you've portrayed...

zenBen: thanks for this. I did feel I was being cavalier in presenting my case there; your commentary softens it appropriately.

However, dismissing the more visceral kinds of fun because we know an underlying biological mechanism is a short-sightedly reductionistic view of the matter. It creates the impression that game design need only focus on the elements peculiar to games - and this is foolishness in videogames, which rely for their appeal on visceral factors at least as much (if not more so) than any putative learning element of the fun. I might argue, for instance, that fiero sells more games than learning ever did. :)

For that matter: if learning is fun, then learning also produces the "short term" endorphin hit - there's no fun without emotion, and all emotions have a chemical substructure (for what little this matters). Either way, discounting visceral experiences as fun is dirty pool.

I think this issue may be in the presentation, as I'm not sure Koster makes the grand claims I infer he does, so much as he allows the reader to imply such grand claims. It is that opening I seek to close.

Thanks again!

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