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GDC Tutorial: Emotion Boot Camp: Putting More Emotion Into Play

This GDC tutorial featured XEODesign's Nicole Lazzaro and Katherine Isbister PhD of the Rensselaer Games Research Laboratory dissecting the process of creating emotion in games and how to exert authorial control over player choices.

March 21, 2006

7 Min Read

Author: by Christopher Woodard


Late last year, film critic Roger Ebert engaged in a lengthy online debate with his readership concerning video games as a legitimate art form. His overall conclusion was "Video games by their nature require player choices, which is the opposite of the strategy of serious film and literature, which requires authorial control". On the opening day of this year's GDC, Katherine Isbister PhD and Nicole Lazzaro of XEODesign Inc. hosted a workshop aimed at helping game designers and their teams understand how to have authorial control over player choices. Specifically the emotions that these choices create.

The session began with Nicole Lazzaro asking the audience to do a small exercise in which they were to pretend a hundred dollar bill was on the floor somewhere and everyone was to try and search for it. After a minute of half-hearted searching from most and some ham-fisted antics from a few, she then informed them that there was in fact a real hundred dollar bill somewhere in the room to be found. Another minute of much more enthused searching still led to no one any richer when the audience was then asked to reach into the back pocket of the person to the immediate right and soon the hundred dollar bill was in the hands of a Swedish woman.

The purpose of the exercise was to show how a concrete goal and reward incited more genuine emotion from the group in eagerness and excitement than the nebulous request to pretend there was a hundred dollars. Here it became clear that the focus on creating emotions in games is not from increased reliance on non-interactive narrative scenes but from recognizing what gameplay mechanics and design lead to what specific emotion and the ways in which to identify, categorize, and eventually accurately predict the emotions the player will feel from the game.

Face Perception And The Four Keys

XEODesign is a company responsible for Player Experience research and design services for games and consumer creativity products. One of the key components of Player Experience research is observation of the player's emotions through facial expressions and gestures. To demonstrate what emotions to look for in a player, the audience was each given convex, wide-angle view mirror to try and enact the four basic emotions that can be discerned through facial expressions alone; fear, surprise, sadness and amusement (curiosity and disgust are also in this group but were not practiced).

After the crash-course in face perception the audience was then told about "the four keys" to unlocking and manipulating the hearts of all gamers: Easy Fun, Serious Fun, People Fun, Hard Fun.

Easy Fun is linked to curiosity. Usually typified by a sense of exploration and non-constrictive goals. Ambiguity, sandbox gameplay, roleplaying and fantasy all typically fall under this definition. Exploration in the Myst series and the sandbox sections of the Grand Theft Auto series were given as examples.

Serious Fun, also referred to as Altered States, is described as meant for players who "play for internal sensations such as excitement or relief from their thoughts and feelings."

People Fun is about amusement and refers to the social aspect of gaming. Whether online or with friends in the room, the feelings of schadenfreude (German word for deriving pleasure from the misfortune of others) and/or naches (Yiddish word for pride from the accomplishment of a child or mentee) are the most common sources for the amusement.

Lastly, Hard Fun. This should lead to the ultimate gaming emotion, Fiero (An Italian word that means the feeling of personal triumph over adversity; it's also the name of a Pontiac sports car).

Most games should strive for a mix of these emotions. Halo as an example offers Hard Fun in the form of visceral combat sequences and quality A.I. It also offers Easy Fun in the form of it's environments and art direction. The oversized moon in the sky and the horizon which reaches upward creates a surreal image that invites exploration and invokes curiosity and wonder giving a secondary emotional motivation to continue playing.

What's important to work on is balance. Too much Easy Fun can lead the player to feel disbelief in the game, too much Hard Fun can lead to disinterest. The balance of difficulty needed to allow a player to feel Fiero is a fine one. However extreme challenge is not the only way to feel a sort of gaming euphoria, power ups and increasing abilities are an example where a player can feel like they've overcome an obstacle without actually needing to put in much effort.    

Characters, Body And Emotion

Katherine Isbister took over at this point to discuss characters and their relation to a player's emotion. Most character designs are based on the primitive emotional response of "Will it kill me, or help me?" and "Can I kick its ass?". To illustrate this point she showed clips from Nintendogs as an example of an immediate friendly response to character, and then a giant menacing dragon from Final Fantasy XII as an example of an obvious foe. It also most likely can kill you.

What triggers these immediate emotional categorizations are usually visual cues from body language. This a part of what Katherine described as surface social effects. Beyond this and needed for more complex emotions is the need to recognize who the player is, such as their culture and gender. Unlike the universal nature of the facial expressions that were studied earlier, body language can vary greatly from region to region and knowing what can be misconstrued during the localization process. She also discussed how voice work has become an expected part of almost every game now and how it's emotional potential is well known. What needs to be worked on and what developers need to be aware of, is how to use voice in relation to body language and facial expressions.

Her final point was to "create emergent social effects and the feeling of vibrant emotional life and connection to the player through the use of social roles and other social dynamics." What this really boiled down to was understanding the classic character archetypes (mentor/mentee, sidekick/comic relief, arch nemesis etc.), their use in story and how to play with the expectations the player would naturally have of them.

Art As Better Business

Interestingly though the purpose of the workshop was to help developers to know their audience and how to create an emotionally satisfying game experience, the motivation for doing this is not the pursuit of artistic legitimacy but actually to increase the audience and sales of all games. Put a love story into Halo and you incorporate a whole new demographic.

With the arrival of the next generation consoles, the possibilities of a deeper, richer emotional experience becomes possible, and developers need to be aware of how to ensure the player experiences the range of emotions intended. Hopefully the works of XEOdesign and their workshops will allow developers to realize their potential.



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