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.