26 July 2012

Rewards, pacing, and dopamine

Rewards and pacing

There is something mysterious when people read through 1000 pages of Cryptonomicon, a 1999 novel from Stephenson, or through the thousands of pages of Martin's A song of ice and fire. What keeps people reading? Here are some rewards that both authors use throughout their books:

Reward Pacing Description
Character progression Randomly (but fits the story) The protagonist learns new skills, grows up, meets love, learns a lesson of life, or gets rich. We care about this character's well-being because we empathize.
Action and passion Every 3-10 pages When stuck in difficult situations, the reader knows that the hero can not die, so she asks herself: how is the hero going to get out of this alive? (Except sometimes, main characters actually die, leaving us in shock). The same applies for romantic scenes, where we wonder not if, but how it's going to work out between two characters.
Story progression Every 10-30 pages Right from the start, the authors put under the reader's nose a bunch of questions: what is happening, why is this guy so mysterious, and so on. The reader wants to know the answers, so she keeps reading until answers are provided, along with new mysteries to figure out.

Looking at blockbuster action movies such as The Bourne Ultimatum, the same kind of pacing emerges: action scenes are followed by the protagonist learning about his past. Then the plot moves on, the character meets new people, finds himself new tasks to do, and back to action scenes.

These rewards and pacing also echo those found in games and mentioned in a class on game balance from Ian Schreiber: gains in character power, discovery of new areas, and progression of the story are rewards to be used at irregular intervals to keep the player engaged. So reading books, watching movies, and playing games seem to provide similar rewards.


Let's dig down to the physiological level of rewards. Most of the articles dealing with the physiological response of gaming revolve around addiction. For instance, a 2012 NY Times article reports that Zynga helps addict millions of people to dopamine, a neurochemical that has been shown to be released by pleasurable activities, including video game playing, but also is understood to play a major role in the cycle of addiction.. To that, the Zynga co-founder replies: Given that we're human, we already want dopamine. And that does not calm things down. So let's look at a less controversial topic: the physiological response of reading. This is not a survey of the field, but rather some picks from a few Google searches - nothing very serious.

First, according to Farland, a current writer, the dramatic structure of stories (exposition - action - climax - denouement) matches the bio-feedback of hormones such as dopamine, adrenaline, and cortisol. He says: As a person "hunts" for clues, or for a way out of a problem, the brain rewards the person by releasing dopamine as a reward. [...] When you reach the climax of the novel, [...] you reach the climax of your emotional exercise. When the story ends [...] your stress is released. The adrenaline and cortisol stop flowing.

As notes from a psychology class on stress can tell us, cortisol is the key hormone of stress. Adrenaline is the hormone that tells our body to be alert. And finally, dopamine is in charge of rewarding our brain.

So what happens when we start reading? Some have guessed that we are having pleasure because reading is a tough task, and our brain rewards us for completing such a hard task. This seems confirmed by a 2001 study who showed that transitioning from rest to reading produces the same increase in dopamine concentration as transitioning from rest to memory-intensive tasks (something cognitively demanding). Although, a 2000 study seems to reject this hypothesis. Something that might be worth investing is whether reading a microwave-oven manual generates as much dopamine as reading an exciting short story where the action starts right from the start.

It may actually be more complicated: the dopamine concentration could actually not indicate our pleasure, but our expectation of pleasure: dopamine motivates us, increasing our energy and drive and compelling us to engage in the pleasurable activity. If everything is as nice as the brain predicted, dopamine levels remain elevated. If things turn out even better than the brain hoped, dopamine levels are increased; we engage in the pleasurable activity even more vigorously. If, on the other hand, the activity is less pleasurable than we thought it would be, dopamine levels plummet.

Back to games

So, what can we conclude about games? First, much like movies and books, reward us by generating dopamine when we succeed at a difficult cognitive tasks such as a head-shot in an FPS, or a successful Chess trap. That is pretty close to fiero, and in fact, Bateman already suggested in 2008 that fiero is a cocktail of epinephrine and dopamine. So, nothing brand new here.

Perhaps more interesting, long-term enjoyment seems to require the dopamine to yo-yo - which is bad. Let us assume that our brain produces dopamine by expecting a nice event. Then when our brain is done with those nice events, the dopamine level will decrease. That would be a horrible yo-yo if there were only one kind of event, but books, movies, and games, have at least three: action, story, and character events. So alternating events and interweaving them in such a way that our brain is always on the lookout may keep dopamine, and pleasure, at high levels instead of making it yo-yo.

There might be a few gotchas, though. First, the magnitude and the lifespan of the dopamine burst depends on a lot factors. Grinding monsters for a drop is only pleasurable so long as the brain is expecting that item to drop. After a couple days, the dopamine is all gone, and it's just boring. Some studies should investigate the average magnitude of an "achievement unlocked!", or the lifespan of a boss kill or a level up.

Second, dopamine bursts may not stack. The brain may be too busy expecting a story progression event that it may ignore, or even worse, be displeased, by a character progression event: it was not expecting it! This limitation does not seem cognitive, but rather emotional, so maybe people with higher EI could stack expectations and dopamine bursts more easily than indifferent people who say "it's just a game"?

Third, and to finish as we started, with books: Stephenson and Martin alternate their character viewpoints chapter after chapter, possibly to keep the reader's attention. By the way, they rarely handle more than 7 characters at the same time, since 7 is a magic cognitive number. These changes in views often cut short the action, so the reader may get frustrated, or even vexed for being tricked to continue reading by the exact same three mechanisms every chapter. It is interesting to know why people keep reading those long books, but that last reason is exactly why I stopped.

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