Danger: Our Quest for Excitement
by Michael J. Apter.
Why do people enjoy dangerous sports like mountaineering or running with the bulls? Why do civillians enjoy playing soldiers and why do ex-soldiers sometimes talk about the dangers and even the suffering of war with nostalgia? Why do we enjoy other’s suffering in stories or movies or the evening news?
In this enjoyable book, Michael Apter attempts to answer these questions with reference to reversal theory, one of the few psychological models that attempts to explain positive emotions and healthy states of mind as well as the negative and unhealthy. He explains that excitement and anxiety are two sides of the same coin, whose value is measured in terms of arousal. Both emotions are physiologically the same: the body is aroused and ready to fight or flee; but the mind interprets arousal differently at different times. When we are in the ‘arousal seeking state’ more arousal is good. High arousal makes us excited and low arousal makes us bored. When we are in the ‘arousal avoiding state’ the opposite is true. High arousal makes us anxious, low arousal makes us relaxed. There is no ‘optimal arousal’ state. In one state, more is better, in the other state less.
Apter spends much of this book discussing how we get into and maintain the ‘arousal seeking state’ through a combination of danger and safety, that he compares to a tiger in a cage. Without the tiger, the cage is boring and we don’t feel danger. Without the cage, the tiger may hurt us and we don’t feel safe. Arousal seeking is about walking the border between safety and danger, aware of the hazards by confident in our minds that we can avoid them (whether or not this is true in reality).
There is much in here for game designers. While Apter only touches on video games briefly in this book, every chapter contains ideas which directly apply. The chapter in which he explores different sources of excitement almost matches LeBlanc’s 8 kinds of fun item for item. The chapter on the excitement of war, both real and imagined, has direct relevance to the debate on violent videogames. The final chapter raises many interesting questions about how our society might be doing itself harm by making life too safe. To the arousal-seeking mind, safety is boredom and an incitement to ever greater risk-taking and anti-social behaviour.
As an introduction to reversal theory, this book is well-written and engaging, illustrated with a host of stories and examples. Some of what is said may seem obvious, but the connections and conclusions it draws are insightful. And it is good to see psychologists willing to investigate the well-functioning mind, and not just the dysfunctional. As designers we need to understand what drives our players as best we can, and this book is an excellent place to start.