On Animal Crossing

Animal Crossing (Nintendo, 2001) offers players an interesting premise: a world with no violence, no harm, and a gameplay based on making your character and the town’s inhabitants happy through favours, giving gifts, and positive changes to the game landscape; this results in a peaceful gameplay, wholly based on pleasurable activities. Why is this world so compelling to so many players? Philosophy might offer an answer to that.

Figure 1: Happy citizens, happy game

According to Bentham and his utilitarian theory, actions should be evaluated by their consequence, in particular through “the overall happiness created for everyone affected by the action” (IEP, no date). Animal Crossing bases much of its gameplay on this very principle: one of the player’s tasks is to constantly change the town’s flora by planting flowers, weeding, and adding trees and objects; this eventually results in growing citizen satisfaction about living there (figure 1), thus making player actions valuable.


Figure 2: Powerful Coffee!

Other actions in the game are all geared towards pleasure and happiness: catching a fish yields positive messages and makes inhabitants near-by smile; shaking trees yields gifts (and the occasional bee); even the simple act of drinking coffee becomes an expression of joy (figure 2). Indeed, consistently with Bertham, a good society “is thus a matter of experiencing pleasure and lack of pain” (IEP, no date). 

Figure 3: Friendship is key

Friendship with inhabitants also takes centre stage in the game (figure 3), with a large part of the game centred around doing favours to neighbours, swapping objects, and attending birthday parties. This is another application of Mill’s prized forms of happiness, represented by “genuine engagement with the world” (MacLeod, 2018), in this case human connection with digital denizens.


Could Animal Crossing be a game representation of the ideal society spoken of by Mill and Bentham, the “kind of philosophic gameworld of a single truth”? And is this why it captures players hearts and attention so much? The answer might be in the next letter from your neighbour!


IEP (Internet Encyclopeadia of Philosophy) (no date), Jeremy Bentham (1748—1832). Available at: https://www.iep.utm.edu/bentham/ (Accessed: 10 March 2018)

MacLeod, C. (2018) John Stuart Mill: Higher Happiness. Available at: https://www.the-tls.co.uk/articles/public/john-stuart-mill-higher-happiness/ (Accessed: 10 March 2018).

Nintendo (2001) Animal Crossing. Nintendo.


Main: Animal Crossing (2018). Available at: https://www.nintendo.co.uk/Games/Nintendo-Characters-Hub/Animal-Crossing-Hub/Animal-Crossing-Hub-1057128.html (Accessed: 10 March 2018)

Animal Crossing | Coffee (no date). Available at: http://animalcrossing.wikia.com/wiki/File:Coffee_Dialogue_1.jpg (Accessed: 10 March 2018)

Animal Crossing | Friends (2017). Available at: http://animalcrossing.wikia.com/wiki/File:Phineas’_Badge_Given_Dialogue.JPG (Accessed: 10 March 2018)

Animal Crossing | Town rating (2016). Available at: http://uk.ign.com/wikis/animal-crossing-new-leaf/How_to_Get_a_Perfect_Town_Rating (Accessed: 10 March 2018)


Getting That Sweetroll: Stealth Indicators in Games

In active stealth games, players can voluntarily choose to hide from enemies (Bycer, 2014). As noted by Bycer, “stealth design has to be made 100% clear to the player” (2017), and the use of UI indicators can be an efficient way to communicate stealth levels to players. This blog will look at two applications of this through the lens of Fagerholt and Lorentzon’s research on UI (2009).

Figure 1: Skyrim’s eye…

When players enters stealth mode in The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim (Bethesda Game Studios, 2011), a  golden eye is displayed in the middle of the screen (figure 1); it gradually opens as the enemy sees the player, or closes when the player is hidden. According to Fagerholt and Lorentzon (2009), this is a non-diegetic element of UI: the eye does not exist inside the fictional game world, and it is not visualised as part of the 3D game space either. While functional and clear, the non-diegetic choice makes the player a passive participant in stealth monitoring, as the indicator is always on-screen and in plain view.


Figure 2: … and Dishonored 2’s bolt

However, Dishonored 2 (Arkane Studios, 2016)  places the stealth meter directly on the enemy in-game (figure 2). Fagerholt and Lorentzon call this a spacial or geometric representation, as it does not exist in the fictional game world but is still visualised within it. This in-game location forces the player to pay attention to the game world to monitor enemies’ awareness. Furthermore,  the meter uses colour (red) and flashing animation to indicate stealth is about the fail, making this a signifier, an “element carrying information about entities external to the signifier itself” (Fagerholt and Lorentzon, 2009). This adds another level of engagement with the player as they are once again required to pay close attention to the stealth indicator to gage their stealth level.


While non-diegetic stealth UI indicators convey information efficiently, spacial representation can be an efficient way to also involve the player further in the stealth mechanics.


Bycer, J. (2014) Reactive vs. Active Stealth in Game Design. Available at: https://www.gamasutra.com/blogs/JoshBycer/20141119/230478/Reactive_vs_Active_Stealth_in_Game_Design.php (Accessed 14 February 2017)

Bycer, J. (2017) The 4 Required Elements of Stealth Game Design. Available at: https://www.gamasutra.com/blogs/JoshBycer/20170316/293799/The_4_Required_Elements_of_Stealth_Game_Design.php (Accessed 14 February 2017)

Fagerholt, E. and Lorentzon, M. (2009) User Interfaces for Increased Player Immersion in FPS Games. Master of Science Thesis. Chalmers University of Technology. Available at: publications.lib.chalmers.se/records/fulltext/111921.pdf (Accessed 14 February 2018)


Arkane Studios (2016) Dishonored 2. Bethesda Softworks.

Bethesda Game Studios (2011) The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim. Bethesda Softworks.


Main Image: The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim (no date). Imgur. Available at: https://imgur.com/gallery/rx7Dnec (Accessed 14 February 2018)

Dishonored 2 (2016). Rock, Paper, Shotgun. Available at: https://www.rockpapershotgun.com/2016/11/14/dishonored-2-review-pc/ (Accessed 14 February 2018)

The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim (2018). Game Pressure. Available at: https://guides.gamepressure.com/theelderscrollsvskyrim/guide.asp?ID=14060 (Accessed 14 February 2018)

Game Theory and Pigeons

Why compare mathematical studies with visual novels about pigeons, such as Hatoful Boyfriend (Mediatonic, 2014)? Because, surprisingly, they have something in common: game theory.

Game theory is the mathematical study of decision-making, outlined by Morganstern and Von Neumann; game theory specifically looks at how the player plans their course, what information is available at every step of the game, and how they put together a strategy (Morganstern, O. and Von Neumann, J., 1944). A genre of games leans heavily on this structure: visual novels.

Dialog tree.png
Example dialog tree. Who *is* Mr Bowler?!

Visual novels are text-based adventure games, regularly asking the players to choose between dialogue options to go forward with the knowledge that different choices will yield different results, and potentially change the outcome of the game. These different choices can be mapped into a dialog tree, which can also be considered a decision tree as each choice is meaningful for player progression. As Salen and Zimmerman note, interactive stories with hypertext structures make for smaller decision trees than more complex games, but are still a common way to flow-chart the player experience (Salen, K. and Zimmerman, E., 2004, pp.232-233).


Personally? Play video games.

Visual novels can add further complexity by adding player stats that can be changed via certain choices, as seen in Long Live the Queen (Hanako Games, 2012). In this game, actions result in mood changes, which can in turn affect how the protagonist reacts to events and character interactions. This link between decisions and outcomes is a key element of game theory, as stated by Davis (Davis, M., 1970, p.3), showing that once again visual novels make use of game theory to build the player experience.


However, it is worth noting that visual novels’ heavy reliance on game theory also has a pitfall, as it allows players to map out the exact path to victory leading to what Salen and Zimmerman call “degenerate strategies ” (Salen, K. and Zimmerman,J. 2004, p. 246), e.g. the exact path to victory. As they point out, this can diminish uncertainty and meaningful play…. but you do get your pigeon boyfriend at the end!


Davis, M. (1970) Game Theory: A Nontechnical Introduction. Mineola: Dover Publication.

Hanako Games (2012) Long Live the Queen. Hanako Games.

Morganstern, O. and Von Neumann, J. (1944) Theory of Games and Economic Behaviour. Princeton: Princeton University Press.

Mediatonic (2014) Hatoful Boyfriend. Devolver Digital.

Salen, K. and Zimmerman, E. (2004) Rules of Play: Game Design Fundamentals. Cambridge: The MIT Press.


Hatoful Boyfriend (2014). Available at: https://www.theguardian.com/technology/2014/sep/12/hatoful-boyfriend-review-love-pigeons-japanese-dating-sim (Accessed 13 November 2017)

Long Live the Queen (2014). Available at: https://www.kotaku.com.au/2014/07/keeping-a-princess-alive-is-harder-than-it-looks/ (Accessed 13 November 2017)

Dialog Trees (2017). Available at: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Dialog_tree (Accessed 13 November 2017)

Operant Behaviour: Crime and Punishment in Dark Souls

For anyone who knows me in person or has read this blog, it’s no revelation that I hold Dark Souls (From Software, 2009) in high consideration, and consider it a huge inspiration in terms of games design. I’m forever amazed that no matter what games design theory you think of, Dark Souls has an interesting application for it. This blog will briefly explore one I have studied recently: operant behaviour in games design.

In the 1930s, psychologist B.F. Skinner brought forward the theory of operant behaviour, arguing that behaviour is learned through a set of reinforcements and/or punishments (McLeod, S., 2015). As Salen and Zimmerman note, this is an important concept in games design, as it allows designers to “shape the actions players are likely to take in the future” (Salen, K. and Zimmerman, E., 2004, p. 345). Three of these reinforcements are of particular interest for this post: positive reinforcement, negative punishment, and the more subtle negative reinforcement. Read on to find out more…

The Dark Souls series uses a fairly straight-forward way to reward players for killing enemies: they gain points. These points, called “souls”, are an in-game currency allowing the players to level-up but also to buy items. This is positive reinforcement: a positive stimulus (souls) after desired behaviour is exhibited (killing things).

In most games, rewards such as experience points and money are never lost and can be spent at the player’s convenience and whim. Not so in Dark Souls: in order to spend their reward, players must either find a merchant in the world or, to level up, reach one of the “bonfires”, safe places dotted through the levels. A very real challenge occurs here: if the player dies before reaching a merchant or bonfire, they lose all the souls they have accumulated. This is effectively a negative punishment, removing a positive stimulus (souls gained) after undesired behaviour is exhibited (dying).

However, the game uses an interesting mechanic to turn this punishment on its head: the player can recover the souls if they reach and stand on the exact location where they died; furthermore, the game only allows the player one chance (one “life”), after which the souls are gone forever. This is in the realm of negative reinforcement: removing a negative stimulus (losing the souls) after desired behaviour is exhibited (reaching the place of death and not dying), adding an interesting layer of complexity in the way the game handles punishment.

Schell (2015, p. 223) explains that taking risks in games is exciting, but that this must be balanced with efficient use of punishment. It’s interesting to note that Dark Souls asks the player to take risks for both punishment and reward, an unusual proposition. Indeed, Dark Souls is not just a “git good”, tough game – it is a game that embraces operant behaviour theory to play with its players’ complex minds, making punishing gameplay all the more rewarding. Ornstein and Smough* salute you!

*A diabolical duo teaming up for one of the toughest boss fights in the series. Yes, I summoned Solaire to beat them. The game designers wanted me to!


From Software (2009) Dark Souls. Namco Bandai Games.

McLeod, S. (2015) Skinner – Operant Conditioning | Simply Psychology. Available at: https://www.simplypsychology.org/operant-conditioning.html (Accessed 30 October 2017).

Salen, K. and Zimmerman, E. (2004) Rules of Play: Game Design Fundamentals. Cambridge: The MIT Press.

Schell, J. (2015) The Art of Game Design: A Book of Lenses. Boca Raton: CRC Press.

All images my own.


Dark Souls and Flow

  Psychologist and theorist Csikszentmihalyi conducted decades of research to understand how certain pleasurable activities induced a phenomenon called “flow”, which he later defined as “a state of peak enjoyment, energetic focus, and creative concentration experienced by people engaged in adult play” (Csikszentmihalyi, 2000). As noted by Salen and Zimmerman (2004), flow is important to video games as it is precisely the feeling that game designers seek to elicit from the players. They further this point by remarking that “games are one of the best kinds of activities to produce flow”. How does Dark Souls fulfil this potential?
  Dark Souls quickly establishes its unforgiving nature. The player starts with a small pool of health points and very little armour, a set-up made worse by the fact that encountered enemies can kill them with as little as two attacks. This feeling is further amplified when coming across level bosses, enemies who often dwarf the fragile player and deal devastating damage (figure 1). The character’s fragility even manifests itself in the player movement: the game makes it is easy to fall into holes, to run into a trap, or to approach a hidden enemy the wrong way, often resulting in immediate death. These mechanics serve to introduce a key element of flow that Csikszentmihalyi calls “the merging of action and awareness”. Indeed, Dark Souls requires the player’s full mental and, through the controls, physical attention to stay alive in the game. This single-mindedness manifests by the player being at one with the game: when dodging, the player does not consciously think of pressing a button to dodge, they simply think of the action, and reproduce it physically without a single thought; in Csikszentmihalyi’s words, “the action carries us forward as if by magic”. While this is common to most games, Dark Souls’ constant level of threat enhances this feeling and makes it even more vital for the player’s survival, thus starting the process of flow.


  Early in the game, Dark Souls also tackles the challenge of “clear goals and feedback”, another of Csikszentmihalyi’s key requirements for flow. Games can be defined as computer programs made of rules, and their gameplay relies on creating understandable goals and feedback. However, as Baron (2012) points out, it should also be considered that “there are inherent limitations on how much information we can parse at any moment”. Dark Souls takes this into consideration and uses an interesting strategy to induce flow: making goals and feedback as simple and discrete as possible. In the first section of the game, the player is given one simple mission: find and ring two bells, and, quite simply, survive this mission. The player quickly realises that all the available areas in the game will lead them to the goal; reaching it is simply a case of moving forward. Furthermore, there are no given side quests, or even a quest menu. Feedback is given an equally minimalistic yet efficient treatment: in Dark Souls, every hit matters and results in your life bar diminishing, each amour can be tested immediately, each move costs stamina, a limited resource that can be depleted, and each leveling-up is indicated through numbers. If you fail, you die, and if you survive, you progress. Such is the vital feedback for the player, further exemplified in the bare but informative user interface (figure 1).

By its implementation of information, its ability to engage the player mentally and physically, and the single-mindedness its gameplay creates, Dark Souls therefore combines several of what Salen and Zimmerman (2004) call “flow activities”, helping trigger peak engagement from the player. Csikszentmihalyi labels this particular combination the “concentration on the task at hand”; he describes it as a state that induces the player to focus all their attention on the activity, leaving room from nothing else in their mind, be it their surroundings or everyday worries. Another logical consequence of this intense concentration is the phenomenon of losing track of time, or in Csikszentmihalyi’s words the “transformation of time”.

As the player’s concentration hits its peak and obscures time, their mind is now free to refine their in-game survival skills. In another application of flow, playing Dark Souls becomes “a challenging activity that requires skills”. As seen above, the player must survive against difficult odds by learning the necessary playing skills to progress. However, in order to be conducive to flow, the game’s learning curve must observe a very precise balance between challenge and skills (figure 2), following the principle that “in flow, the players are balanced between boredom and anxiety” (Csikszentmihalyi, 1997); when successful, this balance creates a flow channel or, as Chen (2006) also calls it, the flow zone. Interestingly, the wording of this chart is not innocent: as observed by Rogers (2014), the concept of difficulty promotes “pain and loss”, but challenge promotes “skill and improvement” instead, the latter offering a very different dynamic that is significantly more conducive to flow. Dark Souls places itself firmly in the challenge camp and avoids a pure difficulty approach with a key mechanic: reliable patterns. While very difficult to defeat, enemies and bosses all have unique patterns of attacks and timing, and regular attempts to defeat them allow the player to observe and memorise them. This gradual mastery helps the player build the skill they need to progress, and prevents prolonged anxiety as defeat always leads to an opportunity to better their skills, and the belief that this knowledge will eventually tip the balance in their favour. The game also avoids boredom by constantly introducing new enemies: their patterns are not known yet, but the player knows they can be.

Screenshot 2017-01-16 15.20.38.png

  This gradual knowledge can also be linked to the “paradox of control”, which occurs when “players attempt to assert control by taking actions” (Salen and Zimmerman, 2004). In Dark Soul’s hostile world, where every step is dangerous, the world itself becomes an enemy; this is something that the player, a participant and not the maker, cannot change. However, Dark Souls once again finds an interesting solution to this design challenge with bonfires. Bonfires can be found throughout the game world and are kindled by the player; they remain dormant until the player activates them, and represent the only way a player can fully heal, replenish healing potions, level up, or, later on, travel quickly through the world. Importantly, these allow the player to establish an enclave of their own in the game where usual rules do not apply: enemies will not approach, healing occurs spontaneously, and, in a game where there is no pause button, the world can effectively be stopped for as long as the player wishes while they sit around the bonfire. By subverting its own rules with this mechanic, Dark Souls allow the player to assert control. It could be argued that the game offers another way for the player to assert control: memorisation. By memorising the game’s geography and enemy patterns, as seen previously, the player is also able to gain the upper hand on some of the game’s traps and challenges and gains a measure of control.

An interesting side-effect to the finely tuned challenge and to the way the play can exert some control in the world is the resulting “loss of self-consciousness”. Csikszentmihalyi explains that this occurs when “the self that the person reflects upon is not the same self that existed before the flow experience: it is now enriched by new skills and fresh achievements”. This can be taken almost literally for a game as demanding and yet rewarding as Dark Souls. Indeed, because its challenge curve through patterns is so well balanced, the player gains a strong sense of achievement as they progress through the game and learn patterns: they gain skills to defeat what were previously very challenging enemies; they memorise the world and avoid traps; they understand weapons and armour and how to use them efficiently; they assert some control in a previously totally hostile world. These constant rewards help the player reflect on their experience and create a positive feedback loop, further enhancing flow.

If Dark Souls achieves flow so well, however, why do some players not enjoy the experience or ever reach flow in the game? Salen and Zimmerman (2004) tackle that question by remarking that “there is no guarantee that the game you design will be put to use by players that are ready or able to experience flow”. Indeed, flow has an unpredictable human element, and as Chen (2006) notes: “like fingerprints, different people have different skills and Flow Zones”. Dark Souls’ tough but fair strategy may therefore make the game seem uncompromising to many players, who would conclude that the flow state is too difficult to reach. Conversely, this strategy is the key reason why other players reach perfect flow, which a less precise system may not have allowed for. It could be argued that the designers therefore decided to prioritise the few players who could reach perfect flow over the ones less susceptible of doing so.

Dark Souls successfully exemplifies all of Csikszentmihalyi’s elements of flow, and achieves them through varied and efficient means. However, it should also be noted that not all players will respond to this implementation of flow positively, as flow is strongly dependent on the individual.


Baron, S. (2012) Gamasutra – Cognitive Flow: The Psychology of Great Game Design [online]. Available at: http://www.gamasutra.com/view/feature/166972/cognitive_flow_the_psychology_of_.php ?print=1 (Accessed 28 November 2016).

Chen, J. (2006) Flow in Games. MFA Thesis. USC School of Cinematic Arts. Available at: http://www.jenovachen.com/flowingames/Flow_in_games_final.pdf (Accessed: 4 December 2016).

Csikszentmihalyi, M. (1991) Flow: The Psychology of Optimal Performance. New York: HarperCollins Publishers, p.67.

Csikszentmihalyi, M. (1997) Happiness and Creativity: Going with the Flow, Futurist (Sep/Oct 1997), Vol. 31 Issue 5, Special Report on Happiness, pp 8-12. Available at: http://www.sristi.org/ispe_old/s3_r1_Happiness.pdf (Accessed: 6 December 2016).

Csikszentmihalyi, M. (2000) Beyond Boredom and Anxiety. San Francisco, CA: Jossey-Bass.

FromSoftware (2011) Dark Souls . Namco Bandai Games.

Hamlet, (2015) Dark Souls 1 Asylum Boss [image]. Available at: http://iam.yellingontheinternet.com/wp-content/uploads/2015/03/2015-03-27_00015.jpg (Accessed 28 November 2016).

Rogers, S. (2014) Level Up! The Guide to Great Video Game Design. 2nd Edition. Hoboken: Wiley, p.361.

Salen, K. and Zimmerman, E. (2004) Rules of Play: Game Design Fundamentals. Cambridge: The MIT Press, pp.336-339.