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Cognitive seduction (a Typology of User Experience Pleasures)


Is Sudoku seductive? Is chess sexy? Is crafting code a turn-on? To our brains, absolutely. But while most of us don't use the word "seductive" in non-sexual contexts, good game designers do. They know what turns your brain on, and they're not afraid to use it. They're experts at the art of "cognitive arousal", and if we're trying to design better experiences for our users, we should be too.

I'm not talking about using sex to arouse your brain. I'm talking about the kind of "experiential pleasure" that comes from solving a puzzle, overcoming a challenge, exploring new territory, becoming swept up in a narrative, interacting with others in a social framework, and discovering something new about yourself. I'm talking about things that engage the brain in a way that Gregory Bateson describes in The Ecology of Mind, discussing games:

"... they are important emotions that we feel and go through and enjoy and find in some mysterious ways to enlarge our spirit."

In the book Rules of Play, by Katie Salen and Eric Zimmerman, game designer Marc LeBlanc defines 8 categories of experiences in a "typology of pleasure". (A slightly different approach also described in the book was developed by Michael J Apter, developer of Reversal Theory.) I took a moment to tweak the "the kinds of experiential pleasure players derive from playing games" to apply it to the NON-game experiences we create for our users.

Typology of Cognitive Pleasures
(in no particular order)

1. Discovery
User experience as exploration of new territory

2. Challenge
User experience as obstacles to overcome, goals lying just beyond current skill and knowledge levels

3. Narrative
User experience as story arc (user on hero's journey) and character identification

4. Self-expression
User experience as self-discovery and creativity

5. Social framework
User experience as an opportunity for interaction/fellowship with others

6. Cognitive Arousal
User experience as brain teaser

7. Thrill
User experience as risk-taking with a safety net

8. Sensation
User experience as sensory stimulation

9. Triumph
User experience as opportunity to kick ass

10. Flow
User experience as opportunity for complete concentration, extreme focus, lack of self-awareness

11. Accomplishment
User experience as opportunity for productivity and success

12. Fantasy
User experience as alternate reality

13. Learning
User experience as opportunity for growth and improvement

I'm going to add this as one of my gazillion checklists to help stay focused on what's going on between the user's ears, and to keep motivating me to think about ways to give users a better experience. Clearly we can't--and wouldn't want to--design a user experience that includes all of those things, but even the best games don't. The point is to see if there are some we can add, or at least tune, to give our users a richer (hi-res) experience.

Given that I spent all of twenty minutes on this, I'm seriously hoping that you'll add to it or refine it for me and my co-author/teacher/developers.

And yes, the picture at the top was a blatant attempt to arouse your brain ; )

Posted by Kathy on April 19, 2006 | Permalink


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Are you trying to seduce me Mrs Sierra?

Posted by: john | Apr 19, 2006 4:00:30 PM


Just curious which of your pleasures corresponds to Mark's Submission (game as pastime) aesthetic?


Posted by: Mike | Apr 19, 2006 4:42:46 PM

John, whatever do you mean?
; )

Mike: I knew someone was going to ask that...
Although I thought "Submission" one was actually "game as masochism" (maybe he softened it somewhere to "pastime"?)

I think there's something really important here--that notion of submitting to constraints--but I couldn't quite get my brain around putting this in the context of a non-game experience. I'm certain it applies, so, help me out here Mike... if you have some thoughts on that I'd love to hear them.

Posted by: Kathy Sierra | Apr 19, 2006 5:26:39 PM

Oh, of course our passions' experiences are seductive... they jiggle those opiate receptors in the brain. The same receptor which loves sex loves the chess game, or that which loves the chess game loves drugs.

No wonder my paramour calls his local comic shop "my crack house". (He's 42, btw, and the only fit and handsome one residing there). While I used to be concerned about the graphic novels' grip on his heart, I realize that somehow, he IS truly passionate about whatever is turning him on about the concepts, art, plots, marketing, and collecting. His interest in comics follows your Cognitive Pleasures list - although comics are also quite "non-game" as well.

I think that in some ways, there is no line between "game" and "non-game". That's too dualistic a description. The Middle Path can be both - and neither.

For him, comics truly are "some mysterious way to enlarge [his] spirit." Gotta give someone credit for being to fully engage that type of flow...

Can't say that about real crack ;)


Posted by: Lauren Muney | Apr 19, 2006 6:26:11 PM


As usual, a magnificant post.

I am conducting a small research now trying to understand how have the user experiences of flickr, myspace, basecamp have gotten so many people emotionally attached and you gave me some great food for thought.

Posted by: Uzi Shmilovici | Apr 19, 2006 7:01:41 PM

I would think that self-expression is one of the more interesting on this list since it seems to be rampant in the emerging consumer trends including the file sharing, online review and user generated content movement.

It seems that self-expression has often been held back by the need for acceptance and to "belong" in the past, when in fact now we are entering a period where expressing one's creativity IS to belong - does that make any sense?



Posted by: Jeff | Apr 19, 2006 7:30:38 PM

I thought this was an excellent post. I am a computer science teacher. I will keep this list handy to create assignments, and lessons that are arouse the learners to learn about programming.
Thanks Kathy

Posted by: Bjorn Holdt | Apr 19, 2006 11:05:54 PM

This woman must love me. She always writes things I always wanted to discover. Thanks ^_^

Posted by: Michael Marzec | Apr 20, 2006 6:38:48 AM

What a brilliant list. May I suggest one addition:

The cognitive pleasure drived from helping others accomplish something they couldn't or wouldn't do on their own.

Posted by: Alexander Kjerulf | Apr 20, 2006 6:48:48 AM

"And yes, the picture at the top was a blatant attempt to arouse your brain ; )"

Well, it worked. I'm running home to fondle my mouse right now! Or maybe I'll cut the cord off it and use it in my next piece of jewelry.

Posted by: Cyndi L | Apr 20, 2006 7:55:05 AM

Yeah. Wow. This hits it on the head. Years ago I read a cool book called The Experience Economy which is all about explaining the rise of businesses like Starbucks by understanding that they create an experience, instead of looking at the simple cost/benefit of the goods they sell ($3.41 for a cup of coffee?!)

There's no reason that software shouldn't be viewed the same way. "It's the experience, stupid".

What I'd like to know is, can I really learn to create a powerful experience or is this a talent that you either have or you don't? If I can learn, how do I learn to do it? I feel like the graphics arts skills end up being so important, and I don't really have those...

Posted by: Charlie Evett | Apr 20, 2006 8:04:01 AM

Your amazing post Applies to well to the classroom as it should be!

I" href="http://coolcatteacher.blogspot.com/2006/04/employing-cognitive-seductu-cation-in.html">Applies to well to the classroom as it should be!

I" rel="nofollow">Congnitive seduct-ucation in the classroom. And I'm not talking about teachers seducing students in the wrong way, there's way too much of that going on lately. Let's seduce them to learn!

Incredble post!

Posted by: Vicki Davis | Apr 20, 2006 8:59:40 AM

Interesting post.

If you enjoyed Eric & Katie's book, I'd also encourage you to read Raph Koster's Theory of Fun. It's also a very easily digested read with some very intriguing ideas in it.

As a fan of that book, I'd say that 2, 11, and 13 are all part of the same thing. The hypothesis he puts forward, if I might paraphrase, is that "fun" is a sensation we experience as reward for challenging ourselves in some way and then overcoming that challenge, when doing so in a risk free environment we call that play. It's our brain's way of rewarding us for learning.

Posted by: Kim | Apr 20, 2006 3:43:11 PM

Hi Kathy !!

It's been a little while since I began to read your posts, but I never wrote a comment.

I'm from Brazil, and your blog makes me feel so sure about what the internet really means: KNOWLEDGE FOR EVERYONE !!

I can say I learn here so much things that I don't see neither in the best maganizes nor the best classes I've attended till now. I work with technology (SAP), and the things you write help me to think about my work life as much as my personal life.

Hope you keep doing this outstanding blog!

Best regards!

Douglas Cezar
[email protected]

Posted by: Douglas | Apr 20, 2006 4:00:41 PM


After you brought up the Masochism angle, I did some more digging and it turns out that at the 2005 Game Design Workshop Mark used BOTH Submission as 'mindless pastime' AND Masochism. Since I've never partaken of the "Mr. Mike, you've been a very naughty boy and must be punished" scene, I can't really comment on how that maps to your cognitive pleasures.

But the 'mindless pastime' definition brings to mind a scene from The Great Escape: Steve McQueen, a baseball, and a mitt making a trip to 'The Cooler'. Or cutting the grass, or peeling potatos or any number of other activities that don't rise to the level of accomplishment or flow, yet produce a zen-kinda-sorta feeling of tranquility (for lack of a better term). They're all 'fun' simply because they take us out of our current circumstances and make us forget our troubles for a while.

Was that helpful?


Posted by: Mike | Apr 20, 2006 10:40:55 PM

Now, if Joe Campbell had only been a hax0r...

Great stuff, Kathy. If you haven't already overlayed those 13 or 14 Typologies (with Alexander's Helping added), it might be worthwhile to try it with a simple matrix of base archetypes from someone like Carol Pearson. Could be interesting.

Posted by: fouro | Apr 21, 2006 12:23:32 AM

lovely photo for a great post. I saw the transparent mighty mouse and neck and then subconciously I see 'section' and guess what I am 'seduced' ;-)

Anyway, Kathy - I think I have commented couple of times on your blog. I am working for www.mytoday.com and I have just made a 'design' daily - available at:
and on the mobile at

I have made a wiki for MyToday and the wiki page for Usability / Design daily at:

it would be great if you could either mail, go to the wiki and recommend so good blogs that you think that can be added.

MyToday is a 'public' RSS aggregator. We hope take RSS to masses. More information if you are interested can be got either at the website or if you email me.

Posted by: vinu | Apr 21, 2006 3:08:18 AM

Hi, Kathy,

Really interesting post. I think there's some overlap, but I can see the shades of meaning (between Triumph and Accomplishment, for example). It's a great list to keep in mind, and as someone already commented, applies to more than just products and games; I'm a writer and several of those are things to keep in mind when trying to craft a compelling story.

I wonder if there's a place for something I'd call Acquisition... the motivating force behind shopping as recreation. I don't do a lot of online gaming, but I know that in immersive worlds, collecting items is a huge part of the game for some people, and sometimes it's not even as part of another goal; it's just to HAVE those items. The popularity of card-based games speaks to the same phenomenon, and legions of collectors of stamps, coins, beer cans, train sets, etc. can speak to the same thing.

Thanks for the stimulating thoughts!

Posted by: Tim | Apr 21, 2006 10:50:27 AM

Kathy and Mike,

First Kathy, I've read you off and on for a couple of months (since a Seth Godin trackback) and I can consistently say WOW. Thanks for always stretching my thought process.

Now Mike as far as Submission as Masochism in gameplay, I'm also not part of the 'thank you miss may I have another' crowd, but I can tell you that when a game is engaging, truly engaging, there are times when I'll stay up way past the point of no return playing the thing. My wife and I are both gamers to some extent and I remember us being in college and skipping classes, some meals, and most sleep for the better part of a week when Myst came out just to solve the stupid thing.

You wind up being so engaged, that although the rational part of your brain says "enough, you have to prep for the big client tomorrow", you press on just to finish 'this last part'. It's a rare game, website, blog, book, tv show, puzzle, clearance sale, etc that can get you to do this, but I would think we'd all like to engage our users to the point where they submit their rationality temporarily.


Posted by: namnum | Apr 21, 2006 5:52:31 PM

fouro: "Now, if Joe Campbell had only been a hax0r..." : )
I'm interested in archetypes for sure, although I know very little--I've paid attention primarily to Hero's Journey, which IS something we think about quite a lot (my co-authors and I).

Alexander: "Helping
The cognitive pleasure drived from helping others accomplish something they couldn't or wouldn't do on their own."

Wow -- I love that one, and it would never have occured to me to put it there yet it seems obvious in a forehead-slapping-way now that you said it. Thank-you.

Charlie: "can I really learn to create a powerful experience or is this a talent that you either have or you don't?" You can definitely learn it! If it were up to talent, I'd be screwed. A big part of why I do this blog, for example, is to both help share what my co-horts and I have learned, and to learn from others like the people contributing to this thread, and those who point out other blogs and books that we can learn from. By FAR the most important element is to *want* to create that experience--so you're already halfway there just by having that desire. Then it's a matter of learning and experimenting...

Mike: Yes, that was very helpful -- that escape-take-me-away thing which gives you some of the same benefits as flow (forget about daily worries, etc.), but doesn't require the same elements of skill and challenge. I was so focused on the "passionate" side, which usually DOES need flow, that I missed that one completely. Thanks for digging!

Tim: Yes, that one belongs on the list for sure! In fact, on one of the lists (can't remember whose), they even had as one of the pleasures the reward of some kind of container and/or tracking of the things you acquire. Good addition, Tim.

Jeff: I hear you (ah, that first long weekend with Myst!) I've missed more sleep since someone gave me a little Sudoku book than I care to think about... and just like a movie, there IS something to the idea of submitting--when giving up control (in a safe way) is exactly what we want, and most especially when we're the ones required to be in control throughout so much of the rest of our life. Cheers : )

Thanks everyone -- I'm going to update the list soon with your additions when I post some more on this topic.

Posted by: Kathy Sierra | Apr 25, 2006 9:38:08 PM

Cyndi: "I'm running home to fondle my mouse right now"
Are you sure that's legal in your state?

Vicki: mapping it to a classroom experience makes all the sense in the world. I'm so glad there are people like you out there who are thinking about, talking about, and doing something about this!

Posted by: Kathy Sierra | Apr 25, 2006 9:52:45 PM

This article is excellent. I avidly play both video games and pen-and-paper RPGS; this article definetly resonates with both what I enjoy and what I try to convey in the games I ST. Its provoking intellectual discourse amongst my friends and I, and I am very happy to have read it.

Thanks a ton,

Posted by: Justin Berman | Apr 27, 2006 11:14:34 AM


Like Charlie I saw the link between your list and the Experience Economy, and so blogged on it here. I think you'll find it interesting.


Posted by: Mike | Apr 28, 2006 8:19:39 PM

Kathy in your one paragraph you mention Sex sells. And refer to Go Daddy's form of advertising. I would have to agree other than on one issue. I think it depends on the end user. Some will not pay tribute to Go Daddy's ad due to the threat of approaching the wrong target market.

Without sounding rude I have also noticed that when it comes to weight loss ads (not exercise ads) the better ad selling more product is the one using overweight people. People want to feel connected in one way or another I suppose. Another simple example is I attended a womens trade show one year ago and there were two booths promoting weight loss products...

#1 Booth. Women with lean body's with exceptional backgrounds promoting weight loss products; books, videos, instruction, etc. Few people purchased from this booth.

#2 Booth. Overweight women, no background, selling weight loss patches. This booth was a hundred times busier than the first booth and sold dozens of weight loss patches.

So with all the nonsense about "Ugly Betty" and how she is socially ridiculed what about the good looking individual who is often overlooked. The later seems to be more of an issue since 2/3rds of population are overweight.

Just something i have been thinking about over the last year and its not until now that i have acquired the guts to post anything.

Posted by: Robyne | Apr 10, 2007 12:30:12 AM

Thanks for this in depth article. Very informative :)

Posted by: Seduction | May 17, 2007 8:36:23 PM

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