Enacted experiences of intellectual discovery could foster Nell’s curiosity and interest (dubious)

::Upon returning to this after some months, I find this note’s claims dubious. It’ll need to be refactored or removed.::

The Primer’s explicit learning quests teach Nell to delegate her curiosity and interest, but sometimes the Primer’s control of Nell’s attention is less explicit. She might notice an interesting object in the environment, decide to investigate it, and find that her curiosity is rewarded in some unexpected way. This is like an Enacted experience of intellectual discovery. In such a scenario, Nell feels that she’s following her own curiosity—but she’s experiencing roughly what an author intended.

For instance, Nell might notice that a particular star’s light comes and goes erratically. Imagine that the Primer lets her zoom in on it, and she discovers that it has many orbiting moons, which she can then begin to explore in more detail. Nell’s interest is rewarded with an edifying answer and an expanded frontier for her future curiosity.

Enacted experiences like these might helpfully scaffold Nell’s values so that she can more immediately participate in an Enabling environment like scientific culture (see Enacted experiences can bootstrap active participation in enabling environments). A real star’s aberration might be hard to notice with the naked eye, so Nell might never have had this experience. But for the purposes of this enacted experience, the author could choose to make it fairly prominent to pique Nell’s curiosity (see also Enacted experiences amplify the power of narrative).

The Primer doesn’t actually do this

The Diamond Age doesn’t contain an example quite this sharp. The Primer does function as a telescope (“She could also go up on hilltops during cold clear nights and use the Primer to see the rings of Saturn and the moons of Jupiter.” p274) but it doesn’t contain authored experiences which shape how that telescope is used. Its guidance for these tools is either explicit and instructional (“the Primer…reminded her to dig up a carrot sprout every few days and examine it so that she could learn how they grew” p274), or absent.

Enacted experiences have limited scope

Like all Cognitive scaffolding, these kinds of supports must fade over time (Enacted experiences exist on a spectrum of participation and authorial control). Real discoveries aren’t spoon-fed like this; too many of these enacted experiences would develop harmful intuitions. The Primer removes many of its scaffolds as Nell develops, but its control of Nell’s attention largely remains until she’s finished the book: The Primer is one big “onboarding” experience for the rest of Nell’s life.

Authentic rewards, not points and badges

In the example above, Nell’s curiosity is rewarded as it would be in an authentic experience. But imagine this alternative: Nell investigates a star because she finds its twinkling odd, and then a wizard rewards her with a new cloak for seeing through his magical illusion. This might be a typical experience in a game, but it would be more like enacting careerist science, not intellectual discovery. The lesson for Nell would be to act on intellectual interests because they might be remunerative.

The Witness’s increasingly authentic enacted experiences

Warning: vague, allusive spoilers for The Witness
The Witness is an interesting reference in this regard, since all three of its layers are enacted experiences of epiphany meant to foster deeper presence. It’s a different goal from the Primer—more experiential than analytical—but the concerns are the same as those discussed above.

In The Witness’s first layer, epiphanies are about in-game achievement; presence is rewarded by “progress,” which encourages more presence. In the second layer, epiphanies are still rewarded by “progress,” but the achievement mechanic is deliberately hollow, and the experiences have a strong sense of wonder that begin to encourage presence for its own sake.

In the third layer, deep presence yields epiphanies rewarded with beauty and wonder. The game doesn’t/can’t even track those final epiphanies. Its role is pure: it makes those experiences possible, but it offers no rewards besides those which accrue to deep presence in the reality.


Stephenson, N. (2003). The Diamond Age: Or, a Young Lady’s Illustrated Primer (Reprint edition). Spectra.

Thekla, Inc. (2016). The Witness. Berkeley, CA.