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ERI #1: The experimentation behaviours

29 Mar

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For basic information on the ERI framework, please read this article

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The TLDR:

Experimentation behaviours are the first of the kinds of behaviour used in ERI. They’re also perhaps the most common and useful for analysing modern game design. E behaviours are motivated by a particular form of pleasure reward, derived from pattern recognition and creation.

They manifest in various forms based on the properties of environments. Environments that have a lot of unknown features trigger open experimentation behaviours. These are characterised by lack of a focused goal and match animal and child play forms in that they appear aimless, spontaneous and compulsive. As environments become apparently well known and understood, behaviour shifts towards rigorous experimentation behaviours, which tend to be highly focused, formal and generate abitrary rules and limitations.

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1: INTRODUCTION

Experimentation behaviours really form the ‘core’ of the ERI framework. This is mostly because they’re the behaviours which modern game design revolves around triggering, so they’re the ones you’ll deal with most often when analysing videogames. They’re also the easiest to break down and isolate, so they’re the easiest to base a theoretical design around.

Raph Koster’s theory of fun does a really good job of outlining the basic premise of these behaviours  so if you’ve read that you’ll be in a good place to see why they’re important. However, as I came up with the framework before I’d read Raph’s work, the different angle I came in from helped me notice a few interesting things that Raph doesn’t talk about and I think are pretty important.

For those who haven’t had the pleasure, Raph sums things up by saying that ‘Fun is just another word for learning’. Similarly, experimentation behaviours are roughly synonymous with learning. Experimenting is, at a really basic level, actively inducing change in the environment in order to see what happens. In seeing what happens you are able to make more educated judgements about that environment. In many cases ‘playing with something’ and ‘experimenting with something’ is used interchangeably, though it’s probably unwise to do so when considering play on a broader scale as we are here.

1: THE MOTIVATOR 

The element of ‘fun’ comes in thanks to a particular biological effect that I would have liked to study in far more detail than I have been able to. There is a distinctive form of pleasure associated with recognising and understanding patterns of all kinds, be they entirely new or the recognition of similarity in two or more patterns previously thought distinct. I’ve yet to meet someone who didn’t immediately understand what I was talking about when I described it: the ‘aha!’ moment, the excitement of discovery. I call it the ‘Eureka sensation’. The important thing to understand is that while the most recognisable experiences of this sensation are quite sharp and distinctive, the same principle applies to all pattern matching, be it highly conscious and deliberate or almost unconscious and incidental. The sensation of slow, steady learning and progress is subtle and softly invigorating, like slow burning carbs to the sugar rush of the sudden, powerful discovery. They are still both a result of the same motivating factor- pleasure from learning.

It’s common to assume that the pleasure of discovery largely comes from the material benefits this may bring, but games scholars for the better part of a century have found that this is not the case. Win or lose, so long as the player’s understanding increases, they’ll feel this particular kind of pleasure. This isn’t strictly true, actually. The trigger is the player recognising their understanding is increasing. This leads to the possibility of someone getting the effect from thinking they see a pattern where none actually exists. This is a fairly common and well documented phenomenon in psychology which illustrates one of the important subtleties in the behaviour. So long as the individual thinks they’ve recognised a pattern, they receive the biological kicker. Actually being right is incidental. Remember that finding a negative- being wrong- is also discovering a pattern, and so can yield just as much, if not more, of this sensation,. This is why surprise is often so ‘fun’. There’s another rarer possibility in that someone is recognising patterns but it is subtle enough that their preconceptions override the reality of the process, leading to frustration. This is one of the more common interactions between E behaviours and R behaviours, so I’ll cover it in more detail in a later article.

It’s easier (and perhaps more accurate) to think in terms of the reward being given for independently constructing patterns- be they proved true or false- rather than just recognising existing ones. This leads to a lot of interesting phenomena to do with imagination that I’ll again not go into here for the sake of brevity.

So the motivator for experimentation is this eureka sensation, a pleasure reward mechanism for indulging in the behaviour. Similarly to sexual pleasure it is powerful and not particularly precise, which means that, just like sex, we’re inclined to do it whenever possible, even if it’s not actually fulfilling the ‘intended purpose’ biologically. This contests purely utilitarian conceptions of play and, while not particularly important to game design, it does make for interesting lines of thought that have helped me more accurately figure out where these behaviours might be influential.

2: THE BEHAVIOURS

So what are these behaviours I’ve been going on about? They are a spectrum of tendencies that arise from this basic mechanism, depending on the environment in which the individual finds themselves. In this case, environment means any kind of recognisably distinct entity with its own set of rules*. So while ‘everything’ is an environment, so is a melee match of Starcraft, a relationship with a friend, a piece of fiction or a Rubix Cube. It’s a fluid thing that shifts with attention.

When an individual is placed in, or restricts their awareness to, an environment in which they have no information from which to create a framework to base their behaviour upon, they will engage in open experimentation behaviour (OEB). This is the more or less random stimulation of the environment by any means possible in order to rustle up some patterns to be observed, analysed and compared to existing knowledge of cause and effect outside the environment. The classic example of this in gameplay is someone reaching a point in a puzzle where they become frustrated. This is the point where they recognise they do not understand the properties of the puzzle and that patterns they assumed were true in this environment are not. They begin to register the environment (which is currently limited to the specific puzzle they are stuck on) as having predominantly ‘unknown’ properties and this triggers OEB.

OEB matches many descriptions of uncultured playforms, from Fagen’s ‘apparently purposeless activity’ to Caillois ‘spontaneous manifestations of the play instinct’. It is characterised by performing a variety of sometimes wildly variable, sometimes strangely methodical actions without a clear ‘goal’. From an internal perspective, the behaviour is almost subconscious, occurring when puzzled or unsure. You act ‘just for the sake of doing something’, move things around, manipulate them, re-arrange them, try and get more sensory information from them- taste, touch, sound, even reaction if the subject of uncertainty seems like it might be alive. By young adulthood this process is so intuitive in most people they don’t recognise they are doing it. It is such a fundamental behaviour that much of your social training and conditioning as a human being relates to controlling and limiting your own tendencies to engage in it, a point that becomes important when we deal with the taboo-breaking capabilities of games and play.

At the other end of the spectrum is rigorous experimentation behaviour (REB). REB occurs in environments where an individual is able to successfully predict the results of simple actions based on their established understanding of patterns- if I drop an apple, I can predict it will fall. If I begin running I can predict roughly when I will get tired.

Rigorous experimentation behaviour isolates and clarifies noted ambiguities in patterns- if I run to the shops, I get tired faster than running to the park. The shops are uphill and the park is downhill, so I’m going to run somewhere else that’s also uphill the same distance away. If I get tired at the same rate, I have more evidence supporting the pattern that uphill running tires me quicker than downhill running. You may note this is very similar to the basic form of the scientific method- hypothesise, isolate, experiment, speculate based on results. This is a fairly good model of REB. The main difference between REB and formal science is that the scientific institution pays a lot closer attention to not falling into logical fallacies than an individual’s natural REB.

Beyond basic isolation and investigation, REB’s have an incredibly important place in studying games, because engaging in REB is essentially creating a game. It is creating a set of abstract limitations and rules with an end goal- testing the initial hypothesis. Everything from doing pushups to see how many you can do to testing whether your new girlfriend minds as much when you leave the dishes in the sink compared to your old one is REB and, at a basic level, a game.

REBs tend to become more and more focused and sharply defined as time goes on. In the frequent case where the REB involves the cooperation of more than one individual, this necessitates clear communication and, inevitably, formal codification of the limitations of the behaviour and goals. You can see where this is going. Caillois identified this trend as ludus, opposite to the spontaneous and apparently direction less actions of paidia– my OEBs. Ludus is the tendency towards ever more intricate and formal limitation in play. The incessant desire to create new rules, to isolate and to emphasise.

This tendency once again derives from our addiction to discovering patterns. By artificially limiting and restricting things we can create new ‘micro environments’ to analyse. I can do 20 pushups, but how many can I do on one arm? On my knuckles? On the backs of my hands? Clapping in between? Combining these restrictions? When our natural environments do not yield sufficient material to satisfy our lust for patterns, we simply make new spaces with new rules. When they are well understood, we further delimit them, again and again and again.

These sorts of behaviours also perform an interesting and powerful function in biological terms. Isolating and developing specific areas of capability in turn generally yields better results than less deliberate, unstructured experience. Once again, not particularly important for game design, but helpful in understanding how this odd proclivity may have remained in our makeup.

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Now, I describe experimentation behaviours as a spectrum. Based on what we have so far, I can define the ends of the spectrum like so:

At one end, in an environment where the individual has no understanding of cause and effect and no points of reference to other environments from which to predict, they will engage in true open experimentation behaviour- acting upon the environment with no goal other than to make something, anything, happen. This purely abstract, for it’s functionally impossible for such an environment to exist.

At the other end, an individual who thinks they know everything about an environment will immediately begin to ‘play god’ and add rules to it, changing the environment to create the opportunity for more patterns to develop and be observed. Once again, this is an abstract space, because no-one (some might say no-one sane) thinks they know everything about an environment. This is since the borders of any environment are a little porous and connected to others by common features, which are in turn connected and so on, meaning that to say you understand one environment is to say you understand them all. People implicitly understand that you can’t perfectly isolate anything from reality because… well, it would cease to be a part of it then.

All experimentation behaviours occur somewhere between these to states- absolute incomprehension to total knowledge, and it is this which determines their properties.

The closer to an environment which would spawn OEB a person is:

  • The more they will act based on no specific goal or innate assumption
  • The less likely they are to predict the outcome of an action
  • The less they will be inclined to arbitrarily limit their own actions based on abstractions
  • The lower the gap between action and observation

The closer to an environment which would spawn REB a person is:

  • the more focused and formal their explorations will be
  • the more likely they will predict the result of their action
  • the more defined and intricate this prediction, if made, will be
  • the more likely they are to artificially constrain or alter their own actions or the environment itself

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To put this in a more narrative mode. Let’s say we dump someone in an entirely unknown environment. Their thought process is likely to begin with thoughts such as:

“I wonder what will happen if I do this

Over time as they explore their environment, the shape of the question will shift towards something more like:

“hmm, I wonder if that will happen if I do this”

As a picture of cause and effect develops more strongly it will eventually shift to:

“hmm, I’m pretty sure this causes that to happen, so that means, when I do it like so, this other thing should also happen, because that’s the way it works over there.

Or even further along:

“Ok, so this does that, and this other thing also does that. If I take the ‘this’ out of this other thing, does just other thing still do that? I don’t think it will, because I’m pretty sure it’s just this that does that.

And finally the stage of artificial alteration is reached:

“well, I know this does that for sure, and it’s definitely only this that does that, not other or thing or even elephants. So let’s see what happens if I get my axe here and see if thi works just as well as this

Note in the last stage the phrasing shifts back towards that in the earlier thoughts- ‘Let’s see what happens’, not ‘I think … will happen’. By making an unnatural change to the environment, (breaking the unity of this) this hypothetical thinker creates new unknowns to be explored and observed.

Between these stages, I’ve also observed there is a gradual shift from the next stage being present near the edge of the subconscious to being the dominant conscious process, but having only my own brain, those of a few close friends and anecdotes in literature and so on to build these observations from I’m not particularly confident saying this is an actual thing.

The most important thing to keep in mind when dealing with this spectrum is that it will only ever trend one way. From a given starting point, over time behaviour will always move towards the REB end of the spectrum. In most cases this progress will be fairly smooth and one directional, though in some cases where a person makes some errant connections on entering an environment and starts with the assumption that they know more than they do, they’ll move forward, hit a wall, slide backwards for a time until they re-establish a solid grounding to work from then begin trending forwards once more. If a person isn’t making false assumptions, their understanding of the environment is genuine, they cannot slide backwards towards OEB, because you cannot ‘fake’ incomprehension. You can ‘fake’ something that looks like OEB, but picking apart thoughts reveals it to be just REB adding some limitations to the environment to give it some new, unknown properties and thus suitable for OEB once more.

4: THE EFFECTS

As you can see, the E behaviours cover a lot of stuff, and do so at a very low level. Like the law of natural selection, when exposed to reality, E behaviours are simple and powerful enough to spawn a mandala of emergent, interweaving, intricate effects that have taken me the best part of a decade to even begin to get my head around over countless instances of careful analysis and observation. So I’m not going to try and give you much beyond the examples in the article so far already do. In later articles I’ll do some case studies under the framework which will give more specific insights into the topic.

Here, I’m just going to once again summarise the most basic effects of the E behaviours and their motivating trigger:

  • People want to discover patterns. They will actively and constantly act upon their environment to provide more information with which to observe or deduce patterns.
  • The reason people want to discover patterns is it gives powerful pleasure. This means that if this pleasure is blocked biologically they will not want to perform these behaviours. If acting upon the desire is restricted, it creates agitation, tension and unease.
  • The most basic effect of this trigger is that when you put someone in an environment with unknown quantities, so long as they can act upon that environment their understanding will increase over time thanks to this desire. If they can only observe their experimentation will be limited and consequently the trend towards understanding will be slowed and reduced in scope.
  • If an individual believes they understand an environment they will tend to artificially isolate elements or expend more and more time trying to break them down to temporarily create more uncertainty.
  • This tendency will lead to an ever increasing number of increasingly sharply defined artificial limitations imposed by the individual upon the environment. These can be wholly intrinsic, formally defined but intrinsically maintained or extrinsically imposed (see this article for more on intrinsic and extrinsic limitations/rules).

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*I’ve been having some debates on this after my article on rule variance. I do not conceive of rules as hard boundaries. In reality, rules can exist in a strange space where they are both true and untrue. So while it is true that the rules of soccer say you have 11 players each team, we can play a game of soccer with 12 players a side. Game theory may state that, no, you are playing a different game which is a variant of soccer, but the way we conceptualise soccer under normal circumstances does not make this distinction. A similar construct exists in biology, the species distinction. In reality there is actually no such thing as a species, since there is no possible way to define the borders of a given species other than taking an individual animal and saying ‘any animal which can’t successfully interbreed with this animal is a different species’- not how we apply the concept mentally at all. Our brains create these sort of ‘both true and untrue’ concepts constantly.

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