Exploring Play

Jussi Holopainen Nokia Research Center

It was a sunny late autumn afternoon. I was walking through a park to buy some groceries. The park attendants had piled the fallen leaves to big, inviting piles on the side of the walkway. I suddenly had a terrible urge to run up to the nearest pile to jump on it, spreading some of the leaves while doing it. I then continued to jump to the next pile and the next and the next. After a while I stopped fooling around and continued my way to the grocery shop with a big smile on my face. You most probably have also encountered similar situations before  – when in a middle of doing something “serious” you just do something unexpected and playful. A British psychologist Michael J. Apter and his collagues have since the mid-seventies developed reversal theory to describe and explain these kinds of situations.

Reversal theory claims that people can be in one of two mutually exclusive psychological states: serious, non-playful, goal-oriented telic and non-serious, playful, action-oriented paratelic (Apter 2006). These two metamotivational states structure the subjective experience of interaction. In the paratelic state the enjoyment arises from the activity itself, the pleasure of the moment. In the telic state achievement of the goal is in the foreground of the experience. People can reverse, inadvertently or on purpose, between telic and paratelic state within a short period of time.

Another two important concepts for reversal theory are arousal, how excited you are bodily, and hedonic tone, does the experience itself feel good or bad for you. The metamotivational state determines how you subjectively assess the hedonic tone for different levels of arousal. In the goal-oriented telic state a low level of arousal is experienced as positive relaxation; you feel good sipping a margarita and just relaxing after a hard day at work. The playful, paratelic state, on the other hand, colours low levels of arousal as boredom; you would like to do something but there is not enough excitement in the environment. The opposite happens for high levels of arousal. In the telic state you feel anxiety or even fear when the arousal is high enough, but in the paratelic state the feeling is excitement. As was noted before, the metamotivational state can switch rapidly. A good, although a bit far-fetched, example is parachuting. When you jump out of the plane your arousal levels go up, quite far up, but as you are in the paratelic state you regard this high level of arousal as excitement. But further on you realize there is something wrong with opening the parachute – you switch to the telic state and the high arousal is now regarded as negative anxiety and fear.

According to Apter there are three different types of reasons for these reversals: contingent, frustration, and satiation. The first reversal type, contingent, is caused by changes in the environment, which can elicit a switch from the focus on goals to focus on activities. An immediate perceived threat, such as a loud crashing noise outside, can “force” the person to focus on finding out what was the cause of the noise and then, if the threat is real, to avoid it. If the threat was non-significant, such as a trash bin toppled by a cat, a reversal to the paratelic state can then happen and result in relaxation, even laughter. Frustation can induce a switch from the paratelic to the telic mode. A badly designed interface and software bugs in a computer game can cause enough frustration to make the switch to telic state and ruin the enjoyment of the game. The frustration can also arise from an obstacle or a challenge which is perceived as impossible to overcome. The last reason, satiation, refers to the cyclic nature of how the metamotivational states can be reversed, a sort of like the waking-sleeping cycle. Sometimes the state is just reversed for no comprehensible external reason, for example, when a person gets fed up with playing his or her favorite computer game and decides to do the laundry instead, or vice versa, deciding to play Solitaire in the middle of the work day at the office.

Apter also introduces the concept of a “protective frame” when discussing the paratelic mode. Apter claims that the person in a paratelic state needs to have the protective frame in place in order to enjoy situations which could otherwise be considered as direct threats (Apter 2006). The famous example is that a tiger without a cage causes anxiety and fear, a cage without a tiger is plain boring, but a tiger with a cage can be exciting. The cage provides the protective frame and induces the paratelic state. The frame does not need to be physical; the anonymity in a chat forum can provide the frame for “playful” social interaction (sadly, including inappropriate playful behavior such as flaming and trolling). The frame does not even need to be real. The person’s subjective assessment of the situation as being protected by a protective frame is enough.

So in summary, you can be in either a playful (telic) or serious (paratelic) metamotivational state in any given time. The nature of the state determines how you subjectively assess different arousal levels as feeling good or feeling bad. In order to be in a playful state there needs to be a protective frame, either a real or a subjective one. How do these relate to my experience with the pile of leaves? First, I was in a telic state, determined to go out and buy some groceries. Then something novel in the environment, the piles of leaves, caught my attention. I made sure no one was watching in order to establish a social protective frame (I am a shy person and the last thing I would like to do is to make myself look like a fool in front of my neighbours). This allowed me to switch into the playful state and have fun jumping in piles of leaves.
Reversal theory focuses on how we can switch between being serious and being playful but does not give an answer whether certain kinds of activities are inherently more playful than others. However, recent research on games and playfulness has tried to sketch out preliminary answers to that question. For example, the PLEX framework mentioned in this book provides a list of 22 playful activities. I will now concentrate on one particular kind of playful activity, namely exploration.

Exploration involves investigating an environment, object or situation. An unknown property gives rise to curiosity (Kubovy 1999), and humans often react to actively quench their curiosity. Garneau (2001) notes that in games, all problems have a similar pattern: they consist of rules, a setting and a goal. It is left to the players to find the best way to reach the goal while adhering to the rules. This is another way of looking at exploration: it is relatively free movement within certain external bounds as Siân will explore further in her article later in the book.

Curiosity and exploration are closely linked; exploration refers to the observable behaviour, whereas curiosity is the corresponding psychological state that leads to exploratory behaviour (Voss and Keller 1983, p. 150). Curiosity can be of two different types: state and trait curiosity (Loewenstein 1994, p. 78). Trait curiosity refers to a long lasting psychological characteristic of people, for example, that Bob is a curious person. State curiosity refers to a situation in the environment that fires up curiosity in people, for example, Bob got curious about the conversation after hearing his name. In the following discussion curiosity and state curiosity are used interchangeably.
Humans (and many, many other animals) are curious by nature (Panksepp 1998). Curiosity and exploration allows us to approach novel, sometimes even threatening, situations and thus learn new things about our immediate physical and social environment (Kashdan and Silvia 2009; Silvia and Kashdan 2009).

Exploration (and the associated curiosity) can be divided into five types. The difference between the types is that the triggering condition of curiosity and the target of exploration are of different kind. The types are spatial, affordance, cognitive, social, and identity exploration.

Spatial exploration is the paradigmatic case for exploration. The triggering condition for curiosity is that there are indications of new territory, that is, geographical areas which the person has not yet explored, in the environment. The exploration behaviour in this case involves going around and making sense of the new territory. Spatial exploration is a strong motivational factor for humans and many other animals too. For example, if rats are placed in a novel environment they will try to explore it even if there would be punishments, such as electronic shocks, for exploratory behaviour (Dashiel 1925; Nissen 1930 cited in Loewenstein 1994). For us humans spatial exploration and the associated curiosity is self-evident and examples are numerous: when we are visiting a previously unknown city there is a strong urge to explore it with or without a map, journeys of exploration throughout history have been not only triggered by the potential material gains, and some outdoor activities are more or less motivated by spatial exploration such as hiking and orienteering. Spatial exploration can, of course, also happen indoors. When you enter a new building, especially one designed for curiosity and exploration such as a museum, you are cued and guided by the indications of new, yet unexplored terrirory from guide signs through maps to just doors.

Affordance exploration can arise when there is a novel object in the environment. Traditionally this is called object exploration but discussing different kinds of affordances can give a more nuanced account of this type of exploration. Affordance as a term was coined by psychologist James J. Gibson (1979) during the seventies to refer to a quality of an object or an environment which allows certain kinds of actions. Later, the term was applied by Donald Norman (1990, 1999), a usability expert, to human-computer interactions. Later work on human computer-interaction (Hartson 2003) proposes four kinds of affordances summarized in below.
Physical Affordances
“Design feature that helps users in doing a physical action in the interface.”

Cognitive Affordance
“Design feature that helps users in knowing something”

Sensory Affordance
“Design feature that helps users sense something (especially cognitive affordances and physical affordances)”

Functional Affordance
“Design feature that helps users accomplish work (i.e., the usefulness of a system function)”

In affordance exploration the person tries to make sense of the functional and sensual characteristics of a novel object. In all four types of affordance exploration the person is cued to explore some affordances of the object, but the most important ones from the ones in underpinning curiosity are the sensory and physical affordances. For example, the intuitive and “interesting” physical and sensory affordances of the iPhone interface lead the users to explore more fully its functional and cognitive affordances.

Cognitive exploration involves going through different incremental or direct solution paths and strategies in order to solve a difficult problem or a puzzle. Perhaps the most famous examples of cognitive exploration are scientific breakthroughs such as Watson and Crick’s discovery of DNA, but playing chess, crossword puzzles, Sudoku, and other puzzles involve cognitive exploration.

Social exploration and especially social curiosity is very much inbuilt into humans and to some other hominids (de Waal 1996). Social curiosity is piqued almost automatically when there are new people in the environment or when a known person violates social expectations. Humans are especially interested in what kinds of relations other people have with each other. Gossiping is extremely widespread amongsts people of all ages, genders, and cultural backgrounds. Curiosity about other people is not only limited to people you may personally know. Celebrity magazines and tabloids are successful despite the fact that they just provide trivial nuggets of social information about people most of us will never know personally.

Identity exploration is perhaps at the same time the most ubiquituous exploration behaviour but also the most difficult to pinpoint. In identity exploration the person is testing and exploring the limits of what he or she is like as a person, including moral standards, values and preferences, behavioural patterns, skills, and knowledge. In one sense this happens for most people almost all the time unconsciously or unintentionally in cases such as testing the skill and knowledge potential by taking an entrance exam to a school. Some situations, however, allow more explicit identity exploration. Role-playing games are built on identity exploration. In these games the main satisfaction arises from playing a character in imagined situations, in other words, trying out being a different person in different situations. Identity exploration situations do not necessarily have to be so focused. Chat rooms, bulletin boards, and other kinds of virtual environments enable identity exploration based on mediated communication between the users (Turkle 1995).

What pulls into exploration, what sustains it

According to the incongruity theories curiosity results from violations of expectations, incompatibility between ideas, incompatibility between behaviour and the inability to predict the future (Kagan 1972). Incongruity theories develop the basic intuition that we are curious about unexpected things or things that we cannot explain. Loewenstein (1994), after reviewing incongruity theories and also drive and competence motivation theories, proposes that curiosity is caused by an information gap between what the person knows and what the person wants to know. Curiosity reflects the desire to close these information gaps. What a person knows can be determined objectively, for example, by tests, but what the person wants to know is highly subjective. Curiosity is both transient, in other words changing rapidly over time, and intense. When curiosity suddenly arises, for example, when you overhear your name from the next table in a restaurant, the feeling can be intense; you focus your attention to be able to close the information gap. But the curiosity can also be lost as easily when you realize that the conversation in the next table is not about you.

According to appraisal models the emotions arise from not the objective features and events of the environment but from how people evaluate the features and events according to their current knowledge, goals, and values (see for example Lazarus 1991). Although this means that appraisals of the same event by different people can be fundamentally different, thus eliciting different kinds of emotions. Silvia and Kashdan (2009) when discussing appraisals and interest posit that there are at least two different kinds of appraisals required for interest. The first one is an appraisal of novelty-complexity, meaning that novel and complex things will by their nature be interesting. Novel and especially complex events and features can, however, be threatening or even cause anxiety and another appraisal, coping potential, is required for resolving whether the event is interesting or threatening. Coping potential is a subjective evaluation of the whether people can understand and potentially control the novel, unexpected, and complex things. Interest and curiosity occurs when the events or features appraised are new but comprehensible.

The intensity of curiosity is dependent on two fundamental factors. The first one is the person’s perceived ability to close the created information gap; the closer the person feels to being closing the gap the greater the curiosity (Loewenstein 1994, p. 88). Secondly, curiosity is positively related to one’s knowledge in the specified domain or situation, that is, the more one knows about a specific information set the more intense the possible curiosity (Loewenstein 1994, p. 89). For example, cutting a photograph of a person to three by three squares, turning them over, and then revealing them one by one will increase the amount of curiosity until the person in the photograph is identified. Then the information gap is closed and the curiosity will vanish.
Sustaining curiosity, and thus the motivation for exploration, is achieved by offering the users constantly novel, but not too complex or simple things. The momentary feelings of discovery should occur every now and then but all the information gaps should not be closed by just one moment of discovery. Some ways to achieve this is to open a new information gap right after the discovery and keeping several information gaps open at the same time. For example, in many games when the players have explored one level of the game other ones open for exploration. This way the players feel that they are able to cope with the complexity of the areas for exploration and that there always seems to be something left unexplored.

In this chapter we have explored two aspects of play: the fundamental psychological basis for playfulness according to reversal theory and some characteristics of exploration as playful activity. This conceptual exploration of playful activities is, at least in my not so humble opinion, important also for playful design. The concepts and ideas borrowed and stolen from various scientific disciples can help in making sense of otherwise extremely complex and wicked design situations. This exploration can both guide and inspire future designs. My hunch is that similar conceptual exercises can reveal interesting, even surprising, design potentials of other kinds of playful activities in addition to exploration.


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These ideas have been developed together with colleagues from Play Society – project and User Experience & Design team at Nokia Research Center.

In the next section we introduce a number of projects, which have explored how play and playfulness can emerge in peoples’ lives, be it day-to-day routines or more specific times and places such as an amusement park. It is obvious that playfulness can emerge in all kinds of situations, although a colleague of mine once remarked that there is nothing playful about the actual moments of birth and death. The following projects can give a glimpse into the myriad ways of how playfulness is an important part of our lives. An extreme example, of course, is an amusement park [page 32] where the whole reason of  the place is to enable play. In contrast , the first contact with mobile phone technologies in a remote Pacific island  [page 22] did evoke playfulness in some people and also a counter-reaction damning play and plei-plei as useless and childish. Check out the following examples of play and think where, when and how play and playfulness become a part of your life.