Part 2, Putting into play – On narrative from a cognitive perspective I

The series Putting into play is part of a more than a one-year-long project which began when I received a request from readers. They had noticed how the cognition-based method Narrative bridging (Boman, Gyllenbäck, 2010) provided an overlook and control of the organization and arrangement of the information (also known as plotting) in the design of an engaging and dynamic game system. Since it is one thing to show how narration and cognition interplay as systems in a game that already exists of which the outcome can be evaluated, but quite another to start from nothing when putting thoughts and feelings into play. When readers expressed curiosity in learning how to use the method from absolute scratch in a hands-on tutorial, a ten-year-old conundrum reemerged concerning the minds-on part of the process.

The dilemma was that if you have a method that is built to assist our thinking in a non-intrusive way but where you don’t have any explicit descriptions of how our mind works, you have a problem. If I weren’t able to get around the beliefs and conceptions surrounding the story and the narrative as to access how our causal thinking and understanding work, I wouldn’t be able to show the method. Neither would I be able to describe how our learning, attention, emotions, desires, intentions, and beliefs work when putting a thought or a feeling into play towards the desired goal in the creation of an engaging and dynamic game system. Least of all, I wouldn’t be able to describe how a cognition-based approach to the narrative and computing could be what saves the desire to reach a goal in the creation of a meaningful experience by listening to the intuition of logic and gut feeling. Such as, what is a feeling? What is a thought? How do they connect with the desired goal?

However, inspired by a request to see if I could make it beyond the so-called structural perspective as to access how our mind works without feeling like riding a bike with no hands when getting to the part concerning the “minds-on”. I decided to launch the series Narrative bridging on testing an experience in July 2018. Knowing that it would take a while to make it to the minds-on part, I waited with telling about the project, which I am glad I did considering the time it took from that I wrote the series Don´t show, involve to make it to this point. But if everything has worked according to the plan, I have provided enough familiar keys on the way that I believe you will recognize if you have followed the previous series. If you are new to the site, keep on reading, and you will find an orientation at the end of the (next) third part, together with references and useful links.

Basically, the only thing that will differ from the previous posts is that we will inverse the process and proceed from a thought or feeling towards the desired goal. As we will set out from a feeling and thought, which means that we will go from a high abstraction level and change it into something “real”. I will dedicate parts 2 and 3 of Putting into play to explain how our intuition of logic and gut feeling can be understood in relation to conceptions and beliefs so we can recognize/detect eventual inconsistencies which could prevent us from reaching the desired goal. At the end of Part 3, Putting into play, I will provide a guide for you who would like to follow the series to explore a cognition-based approach to narrative and computing in the creation of a meaningful and engaging experience.

Before we take off, there are some beliefs I would like to address that I have picked up during the year. Knowing that there are some readers who are wondering if I am doing something else than what they are doing in the game business since I haven’t as of yet mentioned the game-specific elements related to the current understanding of the narrative such as the writing of dramatic story arcs, plots, quests, branched choices and dialogue-trees, etc. The answer is that I haven´t gotten there yet. As some suspect a dislike of story structures or templates such as the Hero´s Journey, I would like to mention that I do in fact appreciate structures and templates since there is a lot to learn from the underlying cognitive and narrative mechanism that makes perceivers act and reacts. I hope we will get to the cognitive and narrative tricks and techniques while we go that among others can explain the game-specific elements.

Considering that we humans have been constructing narratives since the day our thinking was put into play, nothing of what I say is new. It’s only a matter of awareness about something that we have been doing since ancient times. Through what we do in the creation of objects technology tends to blind us, making us believe that we see a progress mind-wise that is rather craft-wise from thousands of years of learning. The interesting thing is how we invent new roles of cognition-based approaches to the design of an engagement where I recently saw someone suggesting “anticipation design”. To avoid having a role for each cognitive activity that concerns our learning, emotions, expectations, experiences, and so on, I am using the term narrative construction when alluding to the practice of conveying the narrative into a meaningful experience. The reason is that the term narrative construction is established within cognitive theories. If someone would like to explore how cognition and narration align, which includes all roles above, they will have to pick up the theories on narrative construction that Jerome Bruner once established within cognitive science (to which David Bordwell´s cognitive approach to narration as systems apply). Using the expression narrative construction is, therefore, a way to prevent the cognitive craft from beliefs and conceptions that could make it cumbersome to mind-wise access the narrative as a cognitive process.

It is true that we want to create new experiences. The first step to get there is to learn how to listen to our intuition of logic and the gut feeling because it can tell us a lot once we know what the “why” we asking means.

How beliefs and conceptions influence our mind

Being aware of how we like to keep a foot in the familiar when exploring the unfamiliar, as that is how our learning works. From processing information when we recognize, distinguish, and compare new information with what we know, which we add to our memory and store together with the emotions. Since we perceive and conceive “learning” and evaluate it as a positive state of mind. Paradoxically to our beliefs about learning as being something good and positive, in a retrospective of human history, we can also see that learning isn’t consistently leading to something good.

When we detect the inconsistency in our conception of learning while processing the contradictions that make “the good learning” looking less “good”. To confirm our expectations (beliefs) we have on learning as being something positive. Instead of asking why we unconsciously create two opposites by inferring that some seem to learn and some don’t. Since we like to learn and understand and where an understanding provides a feeling of satisfaction or relief. If we would think in terms of a system that consists of objects that interact towards a goal. What happens when we create opposites as in this case: one object that learns and one that doesn’t. Unconsidered, based on our beliefs, we create two contrasting systems of beliefs with the help of our cognition and the narrative that creates expectations – based on beliefs:

The contrasting systems above depict how you work as a narrative constructor in the creation of conflicting systems that make a fictive world and its objects to propel. Since you can control the duration and pacing when propelling objects by making one or the other system and its objects learn something new that changes the directions of how the fictive world unfolds. In reality, it is a bit trickier to handle contrasting systems as the beliefs and conceptions we hold can be deeply rooted in our culture, which sometimes requires more than one mind but a gigantic mind-force of a revolution to change. The interesting thing, though, is that even if we intuitively feel that something appears illogical in a system by how the objects interact. Being touch-and-go to differ between what is knowledge, conceptions, or beliefs we easily overwrite our intuition of logic and gut feeling by building a new system of beliefs and conceptions to make sense of the systems that didn´t work. From the perspective of being creative, the contrasting systems we create are often the base of inspiration for storytellers and other art forms. The problem is that the contrasting systems could also inspire more dubious projects to be put into play in reality. However, learning and evolving-wise, the systems that create contrasts won’t take us far unless someone is directing the learning in a positive direction. The question is, how we could tell if we are directing the learning/understanding in a positive or negative direction?

Knowing how our desire to understand works as a strong meaning-making engine by how we are making sense of the world. Everyone could basically claim that they are taking the learning in a positive direction. As we intuitively feel unsatisfied with systems that we create by how they are forming a kind of nonsensical trap. We have interestingly collected proof of what positive learning means thought-wise. From seeing someone´s success in breaking new ground, the expression thinking outside the box has emerged. Based on someone whom we believe is creative, smart, and bold to go against the grain of the common patterns of thinking, we have built a new meaning. From searching the Internet, there is an abundance of quotes and advice on how to think outside the box. Where quotes from Einstein: “We cannot solve our problems with the same thinking we used when we created them” or Steve Jobs: “The people who are crazy enough to think they can change the world are the ones who do” can be found, which we use to explain how to reach success in the creation of a new experience. Again, we create two new opposites discerning a desire concerning a belief that forms our expectations:


As mentioned in the last part of Putting into play, the concerns expressed by the game designer Fumito Ueda about being seen as a person who lives in a fantasy is a kind of an “outside the box” experience in a game context. In contrast to the beliefs of others, Ueda saw himself as a practical person. If looking at the description of Ueda’s design process of “The Last Guardian” (in Part 1, Putting into play), Ueda is far from figuratively or cognitively being “outside a box”. Neither was Einstein or Jobs. Adhering to what is called positive learning within cognition.

Suppose using the box as a visual metaphor. Positive learning occurs if keeping one foot in the familiar when exploring the unfamiliar “outside the box” by being curious and “listen” to the inside in relation to the outside of the box. A positive approach to learning is what creates the antidote towards contrasting systems as it builds on the desire to become competent from learning. Curiosity helps us with building knowledge that is based on what we know to which we can add something new (Bruner, 1996). By asking why we activate the antidote.

Being agile is a style of working with the development of software and how it provides control of the process by making us report what we did in the past and what we will do in the future to take a concept towards the desired goal. On an intuitive level, one can see how well aware we are of the cognitive and narrative processes from what we are doing, saying, thinking, and feeling and how we intuitively understand how the process requires a tool that provides an overlook/control. However, when managing possibilities and constraints, what often goes undetected and overwrite our intuition during the process of managing risks, costs, desires, etc., are the beliefs and conceptions we hold. If we would like to recognize the influences our beliefs have on our actions from a cognitive and narrative perspective to prevent a project from inconsistencies due to the contrasts we create. Figuratively we need to get outside the so-called box to ask the “why“, and where the term metacognition refers to the act of “going outside the box” when we are listening to others as well as our own thinking. Which is easier said than done. As to how do we know that we are outside the box?

How to get outside the box

I wouldn´t bother about what kind of metacognitive strategies people are choosing in their desire to create something new if it weren´t that I figuratively, brought by a desire to explore, ended up outside the so-called box. How you know that you are “outside the box” is when you feel an intense longing to get inside the box, which I experienced when adding computing to my profession as a storyteller in times when writers were asked to write stories like those of moving pictures. To understand what the longing emerges from, it is here our gut feeling, and intuition of logic can help by how we are reading patterns of causal, spatial, and temporal links and how we can sense if there is something that doesn´t make sense in a system by how the objects behave and interact. The question is, how do you listen to the gut feeling, which would take me several years to understand?

Since my idea of adding computing to my profession as a storyteller relating to the study of computer science in 2007 was about being able to communicate with programmers in the same way as I communicated with cinematographers, sound engineers, editors, etc. They claim that stories and narrative weren´t a necessary part of games became troublesome. If the story wasn’t a part of the games, then what was I doing? And if my craft wasn’t a part of the digital media, could it be that we mind-wise were living in two different dimensions? Feeling that there was something that didn’t add up, I started to map my thinking to investigate how the mind of a filmmaker, writer, or designer works during a creative process (or if it even existed).

Parallel to the mapping of my thinking, I began to study programming and where I seriously thought for a moment that my thinking (together with the story) didn’t exist when challenging the object-oriented approach to the structuring of a design pattern for coding. But if having an evolutionarily approach to how our mind works you must also know that there have to be some kind of common denominators between minds (unless someone turned out belonging to another species). I saw my desire to communicate with programmers be realized when a programmer came to my rescue. He was as fascinated as I was to find out how my thinking worked and started to listen to my reasoning.

Though the mind at this time was defined by different styles of thinking, which I today would say is as useful as having horoscope and zodiacs telling what kind of person you are. From listening to my thinking when I was organizing the systems, objects, function, and behaviors according to causal, temporal, and spatial links. The programmer (who should have a gold medal in mindreading by how he was asking “why, what, how” while comparing his thinking with mine) came to the conclusion that if I wanted to be able to program, I would have to think in sequences, step by step, instead of thinking holistically (as in thinking of large scale patterns of systems). Even if I never felt comfortable with the object-oriented approach to the design of coding, which cognitively intruded my mind. It was from a constant stream of signals from the gut feeling, which made me achieve a key to computing. What I didn´t know, though, was that there was an on-going movement of other gut feelings in another part of the world where programmers were mapping a new way of thinking, which should lead to a pattern of organizing systems entities and components (ECS) that for example, Unity came to implement in 2018 to their game engine.

While unaware of the paradigm shift within programming that was running parallel to my mapping. It was the interactive media that came to unveil the intuitive elements that were governing the creative practice within art and entertainment. From my professional point of view, the sensation of the tangible relationship between the audience and the writer caught my attention. Coming from a tradition of following one artist´s notion, the fascinating was how the making of games involved hundreds of minds that worked as one artistic mind towards the desired goal. The most significant difference compared to the old media was how the process included the perceivers to be a part of the creative mind. Since the exchange of thoughts between the constructor and the perceiver required a higher level of awareness to handle the complexity in the organization of the systems. To support the intuition of logic to organize, arrange and generate information with the perceiver in mind, I created a non-intrusive cognition-based method Narrative bridging (Boman, Gyllenbäck, 2010) to assist the thinking in the design of a meaningful game system.

The irony with how our learning works is that once you understand something, it could be like a point of no return. If I would have liked to stay inside the box, I should have stopped in 2007 by not bothering about the claims about the story. At that time, I didn’t know how curiosity plays a crucial role as an antidote towards contrasting systems of beliefs. But my gut feeling knew, which signals I kept receiving, which inevitably made me ask why, how, when, where, who, what. Involuntarily the gut feeling made me feel and act like the child in the tale about The Emperor´s new clothes who obsessively pointed out the inconsistencies in the beliefs (driven by fear in the story) about the Emperor wearing clothes while he didn’t. If you have tried to suppress signals from the gut feeling, you might have noticed that there are different levels of how much you can ignore the gut feeling. The limit for how much my gut feeling could take when it came to how the story/narrative was understood was that I couldn’t pretend to be Scheherazade in the Arabian Nights while secretly thinking in terms of systems, objects, behaviors, relations, motives, and functions when giving meaning to an engaging and dynamic game system. The only thing my gut feeling wanted was to merge everything to mend my mind into one piece.

Since ending up outside the box is nothing you plan or could plan. You may not even be aware of it. Then there are moments when you believe that you are doing something useful like when I published the method and thought that everyone would be happy to see the debate about the story versus games solved and that the story indeed existed. The only thing one had to do was to change the lens from the so-called structural perspective on the narrative, as used in other media, to a cognitive perspective to access the underlying mechanism by how we perceive and conceive information and construct meaning to attract attention, evoke emotions, and engage. But when people seemed hesitant about the method, I believed I could teach. When everyone wanted to learn how to make a dramatic story arc, develop characters, and create lore. I thought it was an academic stubbornness caused by the fact that they had recently (ten years earlier) launched a game program, which they wanted to establish. But the dilemma turned out to be more complicated than a temporary condition of an establishment of a new “field”.

The reason why I found myself without tools to describe the method was due to that there weren’t any explicit descriptions of how our mind worked. Though the theories at hand were like driving a tricycle through deep mud when trying to explain how we cognitively and narratively constructed meanings. It was not strange why people wanted to stay with familiar structures instead of plunging into some kind of dark void of beliefs and conceptions of contrasting systems regarding something we couldn´t “see”. Although we could feel it.

If I were to explain the practice of a narrative constructor and the exchange of thoughts between the constructor and the perceivers in the creation of a meaningful experience, I had to find a way to get back into the box by building a bridge that felt familiar enough to walk over to explore how our thinking worked. The question was just, how would I go about making people aware of their thinking?

Saying that everyone knows a good story by heart. I would say that it is a good system we know by our gut feeling, which was also what created an opening.

The question is, how can we discern our intuition of logic and gut feeling?

Continue to Part 3, Putting into play – On narrative from a cognitive perspective II
Back to Part 1, Putting into play – A model of causal cognition on game design

Illustrations by Linnea Österberg

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