Applying Jean Piaget’s Theories to Difficult Games

Chef: Jean Piaget

Jean Piaget was born in Switzerland in 1896. Many believe he changed the world of psychology through his work on cognitive structures and development. His work sheds light on what makes some difficult games enlightening and others infuriating.

Curious from a young age, Jean found himself drawn to the local university library at the age of 10. By 20 was well known throughout Europe for his contributions to the field of biology. The gifted biologist became interested in the study of the human mind, sitting in on the psychoanalyst lectures by Carl Jung in Zurich and pursued research in psychology, another field in which Piaget would leave his mark.

Working with Theodore Simon at the Binet Institute in the 1920’s the young psychologist was tasked with developing a French version of English IQ test questions. In pursuing this goal Piaget found himself intrigued by the way children incorrectly answered questions discovering in the process what he discerned as a meaningful logic, albeit one distinctly different that of adults, behind the incorrect answers given by the children. Studying the errors of these answers was the first step to what would eventually become Piaget’s theory of genetic epistemology.

Piaget’s life can be looked at as an attempt to uncover the mechanisms behind the development of intelligence. Important to understanding the scope of the legendary Swiss’ theories is the idea that, according to Piaget, intelligence is not just that which is measured on a standard IQ test but a concept that influences all manner of thought including perception and even ethics.

Piaget’s Ingredients

The first ingredient needed to craft Piaget’s theory of cognitive development is the concept of the schema. Explained by Piaget himself as “a cohesive, repeatable action sequence possessing component actions that are tightly interconnected and governed by a core meaning”, schemas act as the basic units of knowledge. According to Piaget, at birth infants only have a few genetically encoded schemas such as a schema for sucking and another for grabbing and as children grow older their schemata grow from this initial meager collection in both number and complexity. The process by which an individual’s schemata grow and evolve is where the meat of Piaget’s theory can be found.

When faced with a stimulus that has been seen before and can be explained through the use of the collection of schema held in the mind of the individual it can be said that that individual is in a state of equilibrium i.e when the sky gets dark and the wind begins to pick up the human mind “consults” a schema connecting these elements to a storm and is content as the external stimulus is explained by the internal understanding of the world. Piaget contends that this state of mental balance is one that the human mind naturally seeks for the comfort it gives the individual. To reach this state the mind must adapt its schemata according to the processes of assimilation and accommodation.

Assimilation can be described as the process of integrating new information into existing schemata structures. Piaget described assimilation with the biological analogy of human digestion(an external substance is changed to become a form suitable for the human body). Returning to the storm schema from before, say a person experiences their first hurricane, the stimulus associated with this sort of storm may be integrated into the storm schema that the person already has.

While assimilation involves modifying the external to meet the demands of the internal, accommodation flips the script, describing a process by which schemas are modified to explain external stimuli. Returning one last time to the storm schema, which now contains not only rain storms but hurricanes, imagine learning information about hurricanes that explains that tropical storms are so distinct from regular storms that they really require the creation of a new tropical storm schema to hold your new nuanced understanding of hurricanes. Accommodation results in more focused and numerous schemas and when used in conjunction with assimilation will move a person closer towards equilibration, away from the frustrating state of disequilibrium.

When faced with information unable to fit within an individual’s schemata(which function as that person’s current understanding of the world and reality as a whole) that individual finds themselves in a state of disequilibrium, a state where the world itself doesn’t make sense to the individual and demands mental adaptation to resolve. It is in this state of frustration and imbalance that a person’s cognitive functioning and reasoning abilities grow as such an imbalance spurns the aforementioned assimilation and accommodation processes. According to Piaget’s theories, putting children in states of disequilibrium allows them to form a personal and nuanced view of the world, one that has been constructed by integrating and modifying the schemas they use to interpret the world in order to reach equilibration. Gaining more knowledge about reality is, according to Jean Piaget, a cycle of confusion and clarity, satisfaction and frustration.


While Piaget’s theories on psychology are applied by storytellers in everything from mystery novels to golden age television, interactive media, especially that of video games, can offer up some of the strongest examples of how Piaget’s theories on learning can improve an experience. What separates video games from other mediums with the potential for storytelling is that video games demand exploration and experimentation from the player to progress. A moviegoer can expect that the questions posed by the script in Act I will be reasonably answered by Act III meaning most films offer up only a taste of disequilibrium, ignoring that, vital to Piaget’s theory is the personal element involved in untangling conflicting schema with accommodation and assimilation.

Only video games truly put the potential to achieve equilibrium in the hands of the consumer, oftentimes demand reaching this equilibrium to unlock more of their content. A player of a videogame unwilling or unable to alter their schemata according to the new stimulus they receive during their experience simply may never progress further within the title, a proposition that clearly scares some developers and publishers and when done incorrectly can results in some truly infuriating games. Piaget theorized that the human condition is one built on the satisfaction that comes from problem solving and an ever expanding world view and it’s no wonder that games that push for true disequilibrium and offer the tools needed to overcome it are often times the most successful. Video games that work to create disequilibrium to be worked through by a player do so for both thematic and mechanical reasons that are worth investigating further.

The Good

Dark Souls 3

Writing on the design genius of the Soulsborne series is a bit old-hat at this point, the series moving from cult hit to cultural touchstone in the world of interactive entertainment, but all of this hand wringing can’t dissuade a discussion of how the Dark Souls series utilizes disequilibrium to create deep immersion within the gameplay and lore of the various locales the series throws its players into. While the focus of these examples will be on Dark Souls 3, the latest and possibly final entry in the series, all of the titles in the collection, including PS4 exclusive Bloodborne have similar design philosophies that exploit Piaget’s theories on cognitive development.

While a careless player is likely die from every enemy within the game at least once, the hollow soldiers of Dark Souls 3 sit on the lowest wrung of difficulty within the pantheon of nightmares found in Lothric. Stalking the first few areas of the game players likely form a schema for these sinewy pale ghouls consisting of their appearance (white and skeletal in tattered clothes), the varieties they come in ( crossbow, straight sword, lantern, shield + sword/spear), as well as their general difficulty (that being low due to their small health pool).

Gradually players will become comfortable with dispatching these creatures, reaching equilibrium as they utilize their hollow soldier schema to instruct them when and where to attack the soldiers, assimilating any new patterns or attacks of these soldiers into their schema for them. It is entirely possible that players will have killed a hundred or more of these enemies, creating a pretty robust schema for the hollow soldier, before reaching the Pus of Man.

The naive player is likely to continue dispatching hollow knights until they reach the rooftop seen in the clip, one full of the worshipping madmen the player has grown accustomed to. Confident and fully prepared to eradicate the hollow plague afflicting the enemy the player runs head first into the hoard before one of the hollow soldiers begins to transform into a grotesque and formidable monster known as the Pus of Man. A player’s first encounter with this beast is likely to result in not only failure but intense disequilibrium that only grows on each subsequent death to the rotting growth found in the same location each time.

The stimulus of the Pus of Man cannot possibly fit within the schema the player has assembled for the hollow soldier and thus said schema most likely demands accommodation to make room for the inchoate horror. Hollow soldiers are weak and gaunt, but at first appearance so is the Pus of Man. Approaching the Pus of Man like a hollow soldier is an example of refusing to adapt, refusing to accommodate and will certainly result in failure. After a player’s first encounter with the monster they must reconstruct and modify their definition of a hollow soldier, creating a new schema for the Pus of Man. The increased complexity and nuance the player now has within their schemata for the enemies within Dark Souls 3 is likely to bring about equilibrium and satisfaction once the player overcomes their new worst nightmare.

The hollow soldier/pus of man dichotomy and the process for integrating these concepts into a coherent whole within the mind of the player is not only found in this example as this simply functions as a microcosm of the Dark Souls design philosophy, one demanding adaptation through Piaget’s theories. Dark Souls is known for its crushing difficulty and the numerous deaths its players will experience but each of these deaths is meant to make the user question their Dark Souls schemata, to reconsider their preconceptions about the oppressive world they are fighting through and tackle the challenge of the game by aggressively seeking out equilibrium. Dark Souls 3 and its ilk are not popular because they are hard but because they satisfy the thirst for knowledge that Piaget theorized we all have within ourselves.

The Not so Good

Rain World

Rainworld is a recent game which has received brilliant praise for its art direction but rather middling impressions on its gameplay and direction given to players. While the difficulty of the game and its treasure trove of mysteries are sure to earn it a place among a hardcore group of fans it seems unlikely to transcend into the casual gamer lexicon the way From Software’s games have managed to do. There are a number of design decisions made by both games to explain this difference but it seems likely that the main reason for difficulty being criticised in Rainworld but praised in Dark Souls is that Rainworld doesn’t do enough to assist in its players cognitive adaptation, constantly keeping them in a state of disequilibrium and thus frustration.

Imagine if in Dark Souls 3 the Pus of Man randomly appeared in a different location after each death, and killed the player so quickly they were unable to even begin to understand what they did wrong. The game being described is similar to Rainworld which features randomly spawning and roaming enemies that can kill the player before they know they are truly in danger. The random nature of the encounters can lead to combat scenarios that are downright unfair being all but impossible for the player to survive with their limited skillset. Upon death players lose map progression and are punished in other ways that are less immediately obvious.

On top of all of these grueling systems is the rain which will kill a player if they are not in one of the game’s designated safe zones. Most of the reviews for Rainworld contain some mention of frustration that ultimately weakened enjoyment of the visually arresting title and lots of this comes down to the game refusing to give players a foothold in order to build their schema upon.

There are 10 varieties of lizard enemies with Rainworld each with distinct hunting patterns and weaknesses. While on paper this sounds exciting, when the placement of these different lizard types are somewhat random and they deal death so quickly it is very difficult for players to build an understanding of each variety of reptile when one death means that the player may not see that specific reptile again for a long period of time. Players constructing a schema for the red lizard when they are instantly murdered by it only to have it be replaced by a blue lizard on their next trek into the wilderness which has its own distinct hunting style is a tiring and in the end somewhat fruitless task for most casual players.

The design philosophy of intense obfuscation is present in all aspects of the game and while Dark Souls 3 features similar attempts to place players in a sense of disequilibrium before allowing players to pull themselves out of it with triumph, Rainworld seems entirely disinterested or unaware that the joy of confusion comes not from having schemas fall apart but the satisfaction that comes from rebuilding them through accommodation and assimilation. With more time for players to understand the cruel world they find themselves in within Rainworld, the less frustration and more feelings of accomplishment the game would offer. Sure, the changes needed to assist players with schema adaptation might make the new Rainworld a slightly different game but it might be a better one, certainly one that Jean Piaget would prefer.