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Persuasive Games: Familiarity, Habituation, and Catchiness

April 2, 2009 Article Start Page 1 of 4 Next

[In his latest 'Persuasive Games' column, author and game designer Ian Bogost looks at why we should repeal Bushnell's Law and move from 'addiction' to 'catchiness' in our framing of video games.]

Here's a game design aphorism you've surely heard before: a game, so it goes, ought to be "easy to learn and hard to master."

This axiom is so frequently repeated because it  purports to hold the key to a powerful outcome: an addicting game, one people want to play over and over again once they've started, and in which starting is smooth and easy.

It's an adage most frequently applied to casual games, but it is also used to describe complex games of deep structure and emergent complexity.

In the modern era, this familiar design guideline comes from coin-op. The aphorism is often attributed, in a slightly different form, to Atari founder Nolan Bushnell. In his honor, the concept has earned the title "Bushnell's Law" or "Nolan's Law":

"All the best games are easy to learn and difficult to master. They should reward the first quarter and the hundredth."

Bushnell learned this lesson first-hand when his first arcade cabinet Computer Space, a coin-op adaptation of the PDP-1 ur-videogame Space War, failed to become a commercial success.

Computer Space was complex, with two buttons for ship rotation, one for thrust, and another one for fire. While the same layout would eventually enjoy incredible success in the coin-op Asteroids, four identical buttons with different functions was too much for the arcade player of 1971.

Pong was supposedly inspired by this failure, a game so simple it could be taught in a single sentence: Avoid missing ball for high score. It seems so obvious, doesn't it? Games that are easy to start up the first time but also offer long-term appeal have the potential to become classics.

Except for one problem: the "easy to learn, hard to master" concept doesn't mean what you think it does.  

Familiarity, not Simplicity

Bushnell's eponymous law notwithstanding, the design values of quick pickup and long-term play surely didn't originate with him. Poker is another game that commonly enjoys the description. The same is true for classic board games like Go, Chess, and Othello.

Indeed, the famous board game inventor George Parker apparently adopted a different a version of Bushnell's Law way back in the late 19th century. From Philip Orbanes's history of Parker Bros.:

Each game must have an exciting, relevant theme and be easy enough for most people to understand. Finally, each game should be so sturdy that it could be played time and again, without wearing out.[1]

Note the subtle differences between Bushnell's take and Parker's. Parker isn't especially concerned with the learnability of a game, just that it deal with a familiar topic in a comprehensible way.

A century hence, time is more precious (or less revered), and simplifying the act of learning a game became Bushnell's focus. Still, something more complex than familiar controls or simple instructions is at work here.

Think about it: Pong isn't easy to learn, at all, for someone who has never played or seen racquet sports. Without a knowledge of such sports, the game would seem just as alien as a space battle around a black hole.

As it happens, table tennis became popular in Victorian England around the same time George Parker began creating games seriously. It offered an indoor version of tennis, a popular lawn sport among the upper-class, played with ad-hoc accoutrements in libraries or conservatories.

Both ordinary tennis and its indoor table variety had enjoyed over a century of continuous practice by the time Bushnell and Atari engineer Al Alcorn popularized their videogame adaptation of the sport (itself a revision of two earlier efforts, Willy Higginbotham's Tennis for Two and Ralph Baer's "Brown Box").

Pong offers quick pick-up not because it is easier to learn than Computer Space (although that was also true), but because it draws on familiar conventions from that sport. Or better, Pong is "easy to learn" precisely because it assumes the basic rules and function of a familiar cultural practice.

Familiarity is thus the primary property of the game, not learnability; it is familiarity that makes something easy to learn. It is what makes "Avoid missing ball" make any sense in the first place.

[1] Philip E. Orbanes,  The Game Makers: The Story of Parker Brothers,  from Tiddledy Winks to Trivial Pursuit,  (Cambridge: Harvard Business School Press, 2003),  p. 13. I am grateful to Jesper Juul for bringing this passage to my attention.

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Lennard Feddersen
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In your article you state that conversion rates on free Zuma downloads are low because:

"One conclusion we can draw from such figures is this: the Zuma trial offers enough habituation to serve a gratifying purpose for most players."

You might draw that conclusion but you can't argue that it's a fact. The demo was a freebie and it's just as likely that a large percentage of the trial users would not have purchased no matter what the demo did.

William Holt
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In a discussion about what makes players play games, I fail to see how anyone can legitimately argue that 'they just don't' as a legitimate option, as Mr. Feddersen has, above me.

Other conclusions that could be drawn as to why Zuma didn't take off are numerous. The game lacked the social context, being a simple browser game. It had a cultural theme tied to a civilization now long lost, which a lot of people couldn't strongly identify with. The site that Zuma is on, PopCap Games, has a 20-second timer that must expire before the prospective player is even allowed a glimpse. The sound effects were unpleasant, not quite sounding like you were playing an ancient aztec board game.

There are many, many other conclusions that can be drawn about Zuma. The fact that it builds upon the classic, if not-oft-referenced, bubble popping game with those dinosaur chaps from Bubble Bobble. That game, in turn, has vague similarities to both vertically scrolling shooters & arkanoid. Arkanoid builds off of Pong.

References such as these, with a solid, recognizable history, are not always the most popular choices, as a lot of what has made these series of games popular is the social interaction aspect. Pong was before my time, but I can remember when Arkanoid was a game embedded in tables at dining establishments, that the customers might have something to do while waiting. Vertically scrolling shooters' strength lies in, again, the social aspect of this, where you compete to keep your initials at the top of the high score list.

Zuma was a halfway decent concept, but the online medium didn't suit it well, at all. That's why very few people purchased it.

Chris Remo
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Really good piece, but it seems to use "easy to learn" and "intuitive" more interchangeably than I would expect. Something can be unintuitive without being difficult to learn--even if you don't know the basic tenets of table tennis, it would surely take a friend only a few seconds to teach you how to play Pong. That is, you would have an easy time learning it. I don't think "learning" is the same as "figuring out in a vacuum." After all, games have a long tradition of being spread from friend to friend. On the other hand, even for someone very familiar with human history and warfare, Civilization IV would probably not be particularly easy to learn to a new player.

Anyway, that's just my take on an arguably minor terminology issue.

Also, on the note of Zuma: I believe the Xbox 360 version on Xbox Live Arcade actually did much better. I don't recall off the top of my head how, if at all, the length and comprehensiveness of the demos of those versions differ.

(On an even more minor note, it's true that Zuma's game design references Puzzle Bobble etc., but that game design is 100% ripped from Mitchell's Puzz Loop, which Mitchell has also more recently released for various systems as Magnetica.)

Simon Carless
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I actually think that Zuma was a pretty significant hit for PopCap on all systems, it's just that the cited conversion rate is standard across all casual games.

I think people are getting sidetracked into discussing Zuma as a game, but what Ian meant was a wider-ranging discussion of casual downloadable games: 'It's a well-known fact that games of this sort' - note emphasis on 'games of this sort', he's talking about the sector.

Ian Bogost
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Right, thanks Simon. Zuma was meant to be a concrete example of a fairly well-documented trend in casual games: low trial to conversion rates. I think Zuma is a great game fwiw!

Ian Bogost
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"... even if you don't know the basic tenets of table tennis, it would surely take a friend only a few seconds to teach you how to play Pong"

So, one of my premises is that this process, whatever you want to call it, relies heavily on familiarity of concept and convention, not just on simplicity or intuitiveness of gameplay. After all, think about *how* someone would teach a friend how to play Pong: they'd say something like, "It's just like table tennis." Whereas explaining the abstract concept of racquet sports would be an onerous task indeed.

William Holt
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@Chris: "On the other hand, even for someone very familiar with human history and warfare, Civilization IV would probably not be particularly easy to learn to a new player."

That's very true; the theme of the game need not necessarily have anything to do with the familiar aspect the game draws from. When Pong was being played in bars, the users had only to figure out how to use one aspect of foreign concept UI - the wheel - in order to manipulate the familiar concept gameplay. Later, the NES's simple game pad allowed people of all ages to enjoy playing as Mario, as the concept of running and jumping was a familiar one, indeed. Building on that, the later SNES, N64, PSX, PS2, etc. consoles, with their controllers ever gaining in complexity, intimidated the older audience, arguably contributing to the creation of video games being seen as a technical skill, rather than an art.

Now, with the Wii in particular, games are making a comeback in popularity, and are now starting to be seen as an art form by the non-gaming community. Boom Blox, for example, combines Jenga and throwing things - both popular, familiar concepts - and successfully presents them to the user in such a way that the method of interaction, as well as the base concept, are familiar ones.

I look forward to seeing what will come of this new line of thought in the future.

Chris Remo
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Thanks for the clarification!


Yes, definitely the case with familiarity of theme vs. familiarity with mechanical aspects.

As far as the Wii and the spread of games, I suspect it's true that that system is helping a lot in terms of again familiarizing more people with games. However, I imagine that particular phenomenon doesn't have much do to with people seeing games as an "art form" as much as an acceptable social activity. (Which is fine--source material like Jenga also isn't seen as an art form by most people, I imagine, and art isn't really its goal.)

William Holt
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@Chris: "Which is fine--source material like Jenga also isn't seen as an art form by most people, I imagine, and art isn't really its goal."

Art is a funny thing - the classification of art does not require the implementation of the same to be artful; it's the creation that matters, and the message that it spreads. At the time of the painting of the Sistine chapel's ceiling, painting wasn't considered an art, but a technical skill; it was Michaelangelo's skill and vision that made a statement to the figures of authority, and to the general public. Likewise, playing Jenga isn't an art form (to most), but the inventiveness behind its creation was most certainly art.

To the point, while the gradual mass social acceptance of games as an acceptable social activity may not be art in any way, shape or form, the ingenuity behind the creation of the games that's driving this movement could definitely be considered art. Whether the general public sees games as an art does not matter; they need only accept gaming as a past time. What matters, really, is that developers see the games they are creating as works of art, and approach it with the same pride and care that a painter approaches a blank canvas.

Mike Lopez
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"Mechanical simplicity is less important than conceptual familiarity."

For me 'mechanical simplicity' equates to accessibility and usability effectiveness. While I agree conceptual familiarity is important a product will have a much more difficult time reaching mass market appeal with poor usability/accessibility issues and here I believe 'easy to learn' is still a very valuable goal. As games become more mainstream we designers need to evolve mechanics away from high complexity in both single mechanics (dual stick or multiple button combos) and total control mappings. This is precisely the direction that the Wii and DS have headed and a great testament to their greater accessibility and success in significantly growing and broadening the video game market.

I believe that 'complexity' is the antithesis of 'catchy', from a purely mechanical standpoint; I submit that if Pong had used 2 analog sticks, a D-pad and 13 buttons surely none of them would have seen anywhere near the success they achieved - no matter how catchy and familiar the concept of a digital version of a racket sport. The same is true for any of the early coin-op games (i.e. Asteroids, Space Invaders and Pac-Man).

Lee Thompson
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I would say that there is a 'critical mass' of sorts for the complexity level of mechanic (esp. input mechanics) that can be used for a given concept, dependent on the expectation of the player of that complexity. You're right in saying that Pong would not have done well if it had used 2 analog sticks etc., and that's because the player associates that with tennis, which is perceived to be a simple activity ('move' and 'hit the ball' are the only two actions a player ever takes). A football game, on the other hand, is expected to have a complex control scheme, because while to many the movements and concepts of football are familiar, they are recognized as complex. Therefore it is not off-putting to see a complicated series of controls and options.

From the other perspective, the Halo Wars game has been met with some negativity because of it's control scheme. I would propose that much of this is not due to an actual failure of the controls (although to be honest I haven't played it, they may just suck) but due to an expectation by players that the controls would be more complex. Gamers are familiar with complicated shortcuts and interfaces in RTS games (and on a broader persepective, people expect large military operations to be very complicated), and when a game replaces this complexity with a simple scheme, *even if the game is designed and balanced around that simplicity*, it will be unpopular and viewed negatively.

In short, the amount of mechanic complexity a player expects to deal with is directly proportional to the perceived complexity of the concept on which the game is based.

As an addendum, no amount of familiarity balance is going to make up for awful mechanics. If they suck, they suck.

Chris Remo
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If you consider the message that a work spreads to be a significant part of what makes art, what would you say the message or vision of Jenga is?

I certainly think the creation of Jenga is, well, a creative endeavor, but I would hesitate to call it art. This particular subject is a bit off-topic for this thread so I don't want to get into a big treatise on what makes art, but I think you can do something creative or of great craftsmanship without necessarily resulting in "art." Again though, this is kind of a different topic to the one at hand.

William Holt
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I think that mechanical simplicity is important, but as gaming has more than survived with dual stick or multiple button control configurations, I don't think that we have reached the point where the hardware control mechanisms have become too complicated. Clever use of dual stick controllers (see Katamari Damacy and We

Luke Winikates
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When we talk about mastering racquets versus mastering go, we might be talking about something different. Mastery means being good at something but the usage can vary a lot; it can mean being good enough to participate without confusion or embarrassment or disfluency, or it can mean being or approaching the best. The question of where on the spectrum the New York Times interviewee Latham’s thinking was is ambiguous. He himself is a champion, which implies one thing, but the way he talks about “mastery” as driving popularity seems like it might be a lower-set bar of “popular mastery” that has to do with how easy the sport is to pick up and play. I don’t think it’s at all clear that he means that the game tops out quickly enough that anybody can be the best at it, and that that means that people will be happy playing the same game forever without more to strive for (as a general rule that can be extended into a video game design principle).

I think you (and Tracy Fullerton) hit it on the head with the reference to “tracing the edges of the game's beauty.”

But I can see that happening in at least two ways: be because you’ve created a model of great complexity that allows peeks at “real” transcendence. Or it could just be a rhetorical trick of always suggesting something staggering that’s not actually there, like the horror rule of “never show the monster.” And actually, I’d assume that chess and go were both modified from their primeval rules over time by master players to open them to more depth and resolve issues and ambiguities in basic design. The same kind of thing is documented in sports like tennis and baseball. So the suggestion of sublime complexity that isn’t actually there can and does play a role in creating a greater level of real complexity by revising the rulebooks. Individual player practice also creates emergent gameplay even in games like baseball or chess, where at one time there was no stealing bases or bunting, or none of those fancy maneuvers with proper names like “so-and-so’s gambit,” etc.

And maybe trying to find the next level of sophistication does have something to do with the mechanism of “addiction” or catchiness in games. In that case, you’d begin to enter into the territory of “flow” that we hear about so much now. Either way, I think that choosing between those two words is a matter of picking between connotations (and isn’t “catchy” negative much of the time too?) that may ultimately point toward what might be the same or a similar neurological process. Addiction is talked about frequently in the context of drugs, but not drugs alone, and according to the OED the word “addiction” dates back to the 16th century. It might seem to be drug-specific, but even that sense is a metaphorical extension of whatever the word was once use to mean.

Not to say that “habituation,” comfort, social stuff, and sheer inertia of habit don’t keep people coming back, but I do figure that getting better at the game is often a part of continuing to get more out of it, which keeps the game rewarding.

I like what you say about catchiness and cognitive itches. But just from hearing the word “itch,” it’s easy to imagine where that might have a connection to chemical dependency as well as to the catchiness of songs, both of them involuntary and often unwanted.

I think that there’s a good piece of writing to be done about mastery of games, drawing on steroid use in baseball, people who play scrabble professionally, and things like go or chess. You might come to the depressing(?) conclusion that it’s largely external factors like a game’s social, historical, intellectual connotations that determine where the line is between prestigious mastery and antisocial mastery. Which would suggest that a designer can’t really set out to influence it all that strongly one way or another.

David Anton
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I'd argue "simplicity" and "familiarity" can be further reduced to the primitive force of awareness. Our ability to observe, collect information, and process it for future events allows us to play games in general. It's the stripping away of the complexity that allows us to focus in on the observations we need to make.

For many people, Super Mario Bros. was their first taste of a videogame. For them, it was like learning to walk for the first time again. While a directional pad can resemble a compass to some, it's an abstract shape to many and doesn't necessarily make sense on a 2D plane. However, as Miyamoto discovered for himself, you don't have to know how to play a game (or be familiar with the concept) to properly to have fun with it.

"Experienced players who want to conquer the game can do so, but newcomers can have fun just touching the controller, moving Mario, and finding many secrets in the games." -Shigeru Miyamoto

Ian Bogost
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Keep in mind that "mechanical simplicity" can refer to matters of game mechanics as much as (or more?) than the mechanics of input. As Computer Space and so many other examples show, complex input can certainly make a game less approachable. Still, the matter isn't really one of complexity vs simplicity. A motor vehicle has a pretty complex interface, but it's also a familiar one, so a game that draws on that familiarity will be more easily approached. This is the sort of observation I'm trying to get at by replacing simplicity with familiarity.


Good comments; as the column hopefully suggests, I agree that there are different sorts of mastery. But I don't think that applications of Bushnell's Law in game design address that point very frequently. Indeed, I wonder if we ever really ask what "mastery" means. Sublime mastery is easy enough to understand. But "popular mastery" (or whatever we wish to call it) seems to involve becoming good enough to use the game for some purpose that includes but moves beyond the game. Does that make sense?

I agree that catchiness and "itch" may not always have positive connotations, and certainly advertisers have used the catchy jingle for decades as a way to get inside our heads. But I do think it's a more appealing and accurate frame than addiction.

Finally, I'm happy to admit that we do like to get better at a game! I just don't think that's the same as mastery, in any sense of the word.

William Holt
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Figured out why my post wouldn't go through - the less than sign.


I think that mechanical simplicity is important, but as gaming has more than survived with dual stick or multiple button control configurations, I don't think that we have reached the point where the hardware control mechanisms have become too complicated. Clever use of dual stick controllers (see Katamari Damacy and We Heart Katamari) and buttons as toggle switches (Prince of Persia's wall run & landscape view buttons) rather than action buttons, which have examples of being done well, as shortcut / macro buttons (Breath of Fire's mapping submenus to the L and R buttons, Final Fantasy 3's mapping Target All to the L button), not to mention buttons that have contextual functions, it's possible to squeeze simple, elegant function without too much confusion into a multi-buttoned, multi-stick controller.

The mechanical controls of whatever platform any given game is on does not matter; it's up to the developers to design their game's controls and functions keeping the method of input in mind. If we look at Everquest, it's practically impossible to play that game easily with a control pad. If we look at Final Fantasy XI, however, it's pretty easy to play it with a control pad, as it was designed to play like any previous final fantasy, but with a chat box and social interaction. To use an offline example, look at TF2. Keyboard and mouse is obviously the method of input preferred, and the keyboard has well over 30 buttons!

Early games, such as pong, arkanoid, asteroids, pac-man, super mario bros., and so on would not have survived, but back then, games didn't have the amount of function that warranted that degree of control. As games and technology evolved, so, too, did the controller. The DS has ABXY, Select, Start, L and R plus a touchpad, which removes the need for many more buttons. The Wii has 6 buttons, motion, positional and infra-red sensors, a d-pad and an analog stick. The buttons might not be there, but the mechanical complexity has increased exponentially.

But, semantics aside, you're right - a decrease in a mechanical controller's apparent complexity is definitely the way to go. Just as long as we're not left with a ball and cup. ;)


Forgive me, I left out a step - Michaelangelo created the work of art on the Sistine chapel ceiling by painting artfully, which then, by seeing what could be accomplished by a skilled painter, allowed the general public to see painting as an art form.

I feel I need to differentiate between making art (artfully doing something) and art (a work of art). Jenga was artfully designed. The creation of Jenga was art in the making. Jenga doesn't necessarily have a message, except 'get together with your family and friends, and play'.

Having said that, you're right - you can do something with great skill or craftsmanship without resulting in art, but there's no rule that says the process itself cannot be considered artful.

Dustin Chertoff
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No offense intended with this post, but this topic has been known by educational psychologists for decades. It basically is referring to the concept of scaffolding (see

Are game designers just now starting to get caught up with the science behind game play? My impression was that the good designers just had an intuitive understanding of the scientific concepts behind enjoyment of a game, but not the actual scientific theory. But this article is making me question whether many designers even have the intuitive understanding as well.

I'm starting to think that all of our game design programs need to seriously consider adding several psychology courses to the mix.

Ian Bogost
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I think you're misunderstanding the article. My piece is a critique of how game design has received and used Bushnell's Law. If you want to apply scaffolding theory to the design invitation I offer here, feel free. But wielding your pet theories as the sole lenses useful for analysis is an unfortunate way to conduct a conversation.

Tim Holt
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I really like the whole 'catchiness' concept. What it makes me think of is the idea of 'humability' for songs. A catchy tune is one you can hum or replay in your head; though not necessarily the whole tune, but just select passages. Take Beethoven's "Für Elise" for example. A lot of people will recognize the main theme or can even play it on the piano, but how many people recognize (or can play) the following sections of the piece? I've known how to play the first part for 35 years but I never can get to that "other part".

Some games have the equivalent of 'humability' when there are certain events, scenes and mini-games which are memorable. I can mentally replay and remember what it's like to take on a Combine Drop Ship in Half-Life 2, or what it's like to try and get a pesky head crab with a crowbar for example. Or picking locks in Fallout 3 (to the point where my heart speeds up a bit when I see a stray bobby pin on the ground in real life). What comes to mind when I think of Doom 3? Not much (bad). Duke Nukem 3D? Duke comments probably (good). Oregon Trail Game? Hunting, dysentery, maybe river crossing (good) Fallout (original)? Cool terrain (good for game developers, bad for game itself).

That idea of mental repeatability ties into literal replay interest, whether you're talking games or music. I'll go back and play a game (or piece of music) over and over if I can "hum along with it" or it has some kind of emotionally transcendent capability. Not really so for ones that don't have this effect.

Anyway, catchiness - a great way to tag a game that's a lot better than "addictive".

Dustin Chertoff
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My comments were focused on the first half regarding familiarity and learnability of games. The latter portion of the article is a good analysis of what to do. But I disagree with throwing away the first half of the law. Easy to learn, hard to master doesn't have to go away. Rather, the latter half (1st play just as fulfilling as the 100th) needs to be incorporated into the first half. Maybe its better to say a new law is needed.

"With each play of a game, the player should learn something new about themselves or the game."

It all comes down to incremental, noticeable gains in some game related construct each time you play. Your initial level of skill with a game is going to come down to your familiarity with the game. In fact, the learnability of a game is very closely coupled to how familiar you are with the concepts, and if you are not already familiar, how well the game does to get you familiar with them quickly. As you mentioned, the learnability of pong was due to familiarity with bouncing a ball off of another object. This is exactly where scaffolding theory applies. A game is more or less familiar based on how well it can trigger existing knowledge of the player, not only in terms of game constructs, but in other constructs as well (such as knowledge of racquet sports).

The same applies at the "100th" play as well. By drawing in the modern cultural references, it gives the player the ability to interpret the game in a new light, thus making the game remain interesting. But the triggering of those additional connections can only happen if the player already knows about the cultural constructs being triggered. An American student playing a Japanese game will not interpret a cram school the same way as a Japanese student playing that same game. (The closest approximation we would have are SAT prep courses, but they are called something completely different and the societal implications of the exams are much different.) The knowledge that we have, and our ability to attach new knowledge to existing knowledge is what scaffolding theory is about. This is directly tied to how learnable and familiar a game will appear to the player.

My point is, if game designers want to seriously consider the "thoughts" of their users while they are playing, then they should really learn some cognitive theory. The really good game designers have had an intuitive understanding of many of these concepts. Now it's time for there to be some formal game design principles. Cognitive science and psychology has a lot of relevant theory that game designers should seriously explore. This article is a good initial probing of the incredibly relevant iceberg underneath. Now dive in and explore.

Open Source Designer
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Personally I think you're getting hung up on the semantics of Bushnell's statement:

"Easy to learn, hard to master."

Most good games do fall into this sweeping generalisation. Good games tend to be those which a new player can easily understand the basic principles and mechanics but which there is sufficient depth in which to progress as a player.

Tennis is a game easy to learn, hard to master - I can play tennis, but I'm not going to beat Rafael Nadal (or indeed any pro or semi-pro player). Is my enjoyment of the game lessened by my inadequacy in the face of Mr. Nadal? No, I can still enjoy a game with an opponent of a similar skill (and fitness!) level. The same (minus fitness) can be said of chess.

I don't believe Bushnell meant 'mastery' in the sense of sublime mastery - I don't think he wanted us all to aim to be Nadal. He just wanted the games to have the necessary depth to allow the Nadals of the gaming world to be capable of expressing their abilities. Which, imho, there is nothing wrong with at all...