One of the more interesting emotional behaviours associated with videogames is curiosity – that powerful drive to seek out new and interesting information. Yet there is very little written on the subject, unless you count Nicole Lazzaro’s “Easy Fun” key. Or at least – so I thought. Super-heroic Only a Game fixture zenBen (whose blog can be found here), however, has given me nothing short of three papers on the subject of curiosity in the last fortnight. I can scarcely keep up with his deep academic pockets! One of these papers we will come to shortly in another context; for today, I want to talk about two papers by Thomas W. Malone, one from 1980 and the other from 1981.
Malone was conducting research into games as tools for learning – now a very popular topic, but at the time, videogames were far from spectacularly impressive. To put this in context, the most advanced coin-op videogames at this time were Asteroids (Atari) and Pac-man (Namco/Midway). Nonetheless, Malone’s papers make for fascinating reading, and contain numerous ideas still pertinent to the games industry. In fact, what is most disturbing to me is that Malone’s papers aren’t cited more often, or indeed, required reading for game designers.
The papers are packed full of little observations which remain as poignant today as ever. For instance, in the 1980 paper Malone notes in the context of the way the game communicates success and failure to the player:
...performance feedback should be presented in a way that minimized the possibility of self-esteem damage.
This is a lesson that a staggering number of videogames have never learned! Most players are easily discouraged, and yet a macho, conqueror-style ethos is still quite prevalent, with failure being met with abuse and ridicule (even in an otherwise charming game such as Katamari Damacy – although at least in this case a touch of humour offsets the problem).
The most salient line in the 1980 paper states succinctly what should have been the mantra for the videogames industry for the past twenty five years:
If computer game designers can create many different kinds of fantasies for different kinds of people, their games are likely to have much broader appeal.
The same idea is re-iterated in the later paper:
...fantasies can be very important in creating intrinsically motivating environments but that, unless the fantasies are carefully chosen to appeal to the target audience, they may actually make the environment less interesting rather than more.
This is a claim I have been making with ever-increasing force in recent years, and it stuns me to read that someone else could make this observation back when the industry was in its infancy. How does Malone reach his conclusion? By analysing the components of a videogame and the response that players have to the game with different elements removed. He finds that the inherent fantasy of the game (the setting, or the focus of the mimicry) is the single largest factor in player’s enjoying a game – a fact that remains as valid today as it was in 1980.
The discussion of curiosity is mainly in the 1980 paper (although it is summarised in the later piece), and is presented in a pre-existing psychological framework:
Curiosity is the motivation to learn, independent of any goal-seeking or fantasy-fulfilment. Computer games can evoke a learner’s curiosity by providing environments that have an optimal level of informational complexity (Berlyne, 1965; Piaget, 1952). In other words, the environments should be neither too complicated nor too simple with respect to the learner’s existing knowledge. They should be novel and surprising, but not completely incomprehensible.
This observation ties up with recent research into a neurobiological mechanism for interest (or curiosity) by Biederman and Vessel, but we will review this work at another time when we begin to dig into the biology of play more explicitly.
Malone divides curiosity into two variants: sensory curiosity, which is about maintaining interest in the senses (and matches up with Biederman and Vessel), and cognitive curiosity, which is more about the semantic content of information. For example, one picks up a National Geographic because the photo on the cover is intriguing – this is sensory curiosity. One picks up a newspaper because of a surprising headline – this is cognitive curiosity.
The idea of sensory curiosity is not enormously explored beyond the basic statement, although there is some discussion about the work of Jerry Mander’s 1978 work on television and TV commercials in particular. The discussion here focuses on “technical events” – that is, camera cuts, zooms and other changes which apparently serve to keep the viewer’s interest solely on the level of sensory interest. I believe there is considerable more work to be conducted in exploring sensory curiosity in videogames.
On the subject of cognitive curiosity, Malone makes an interesting (although intuited and therefore essentially unsupported) claim:
...people are motivated to bring to all their cognitive structures three of the characteristics of well-formed scientific theories: completeness, consistency and parsimony. According to this theory, the way to engage learners’ curiosity is to present just enough information to make their existing knowledge seem incomplete, inconsistent, or unparsimonious.
This idea strikes me as worthy of further investigation, and even suggests something concerning the nature of science itself. Since until recent centuries “science” meant “domain of knowledge”, perhaps the element that has allowed what we now term “science” (i.e. empirical research) to gain so much ground is that its mechanisms produce statements that are cognitively pleasing. The alternative interpretation – that we aim for cognitively balanced statements because of the influence of science – seems somehow less plausible, but there is room for inquiry in either case.
There is much to explore in the context of videogames in terms of these three conditions: each suggests a way to sustain the interest of players. By comparison, Lazzaro’s work highlights three aspects of curiosity that can be leveraged: ambiguity, incompleteness and detail. ‘Ambiguity’ seems to match Malone’s ‘inconsistency’ to some extent, ‘incompleteness’ matches ‘incompleteness’ perfectly, while Lazzaro’s ‘detail’ seems to match Malone’s sensory curiosity. Only Malone’s ‘unparsimonious’ (that is to say, ideas that violate the principle of Occam’s razor that knowledge should be succinct) seems unmatched in this comparison. I’m uncertain to what extent players are interested in parsimonious game rules, or to be more precise, while I’m certain some players are interested in developing parsimonious knowledge, it’s unclear how one leverages the absence of parsimony to provoke curiosity.
One aspect of how Malone suggests making use of player curiosity is particularly intriguing. In the 1981 paper, he includes the following bullet point under the subheading of curiosity:
Does the interface use randomness in a way that adds variety without making tools unreliable?
This matches up to our exploration of the use of luck in videogames – the landscape function that I have suggested is one of the modern expressions of Caillois’ alea (games of chance and fate) in videogames. Malone is suggesting that randomness is useful in games because it can provoke curiosity – and on examination, it seems he is on to something here. It is undeniable that the benefit of randomly generating content in a videogame is that the chance-fuelled combinations will produce something intriguing, memorable or simply bizarre. Malone even lists randomness as one of four factors most strongly correlated with a game’s popularity (the other three being explicit goals, score-keeping, and audio effects – but since he was working in 1980 it is important to remember just how crude the games used in his studies would have been).
The idea that an uncertain outcome can fuel a player’s interest is one of the most fascinating elements of the Malone papers, and suggests a link between chance and curiosity in videogames. Malone notes:
Randomness and humor, if used carefully, can also help make an environment optimally complex.
...if randomness is used in a way that makes tools unreliable it will almost certainly be frustrating rather than enjoyable.
Malone’s observations that uncertain outcomes are inherently part of the draw of videogames warrant further investigation. It seems to me that there are games where the outcome is not really uncertain – in most RPGs, you know you’re going to level up, you just don’t know how, for instance – but even in these cases there is always a level of uncertainty at work. Consider how a player who has mastered a particular game produces a new uncertainty by adding a higher level goal (in speed runs, for instance) – thus restoring uncertainty to the situation.
Perhaps in uncertainty we have a definitive link between chance and curiosity, something which will expand the emotions associated with chance in games (namely the excitement of an unknown outcome, the fiero of winning against the odds, and the sadness of failure) and potentially suggest to us a whole new avenue of exploration in videogame design.
Although the games which were the subjects of Malone’s papers have aged terribly in the intervening decades, Malone’s work has not. I heartily recommend both these papers as a fascinating and oddly fresh perspective on the play of videogames.
The opening image is a Jon Bertelli print entitled Curiosity, which is available for purchase here. As ever, no copyright infringement is intended and I will take the image down if asked.
The papers referred to in this post are as follows:
Malone, Thomas W., “What makes things fun to learn? Heuristics for designing instructional computer games”, ACM, 1980.
Malone, Thomas W., “Heuristics for designing enjoyable user interfaces: Lessons from computer games”, ACM, 1981.