Pleasures of Small Motions: Mastering the Mental Game of Pocket Billiards, by Bob Fancher Ph.D.
Bob Fancher is an avid pool player and a columnist on all things billiards for the Washington Post. He is also a trained philosophy and psychotherapist. In this short book he brings his expertise in psychology to the problem of playing pool. He debunks a lot of popular sports psychology and uses his knowledge of cognitive psychology to explain how the mind works when engaged in playing pool.
The book is called “Pleasures of Small Motions” after its central theme: the joy of pool comes in the mastery of small and precise movements to control the play of the balls. This, he argues, has to be the foundation of good pool. You may be motivated to play by other extrinsic factors such as competition or camaraderie, but if you don’t take pleasure in the intrinsic joy of controlling the movement of the balls on the table, then you will never master the game.
Fancher’s book is directed at players, not designers, but there is a lot for us to learn from this book. This is perhaps the only example I know of a psychologist looking in depth into a specific game and analysing how it is played. A lot of what he writes can be taken to other games, especially computer games which, like pool, often involve the mastery of “small motions”.
Fancher keeps returning to this theme, discussing not only the pleasure of mastery but the psychological processes by which it is achieved. He distinguishes “conscious” and “unconscious” control and explains why a good pool player shouldn’t think about the shot. Consciousness is slow and clumsy. It is good at making plans and setting goals, but it needs to hand those plans over to the unconscious brain to execute, and to listen to the unconscious brain for hunches. These he demystifies as merely the trained pattern-recognition of the non-lingual parts of the brain.
In a field that is increasingly focused on status, achievements and other extrinsic motivators to play, it is easy for us to lose sight of the pleasures of small motions in our designs. Mastering the nuances of careful play is one of the fundamental pleasures of any game. This involves both consciously identifying goals and making plans, and unconsciously following hunches and going with the “flow” (a phenomenon Fancher identifies as ‘dead stroke’).
This is especially the case for educational games, which tend to use gameplay to chocolate-coat an unpalatable learning task. The present ‘gamification’ fad focuses on competition and other status mechanics to achieve this. Fancher acknowledges the value of competition to bring out the best in our play, but he reminds us that if your only pleasure is in being the best, you will be disappointed and discouraged most of the time. The pleasure must ultimately lie in the game itself.