In defence of emotions in games

A discussion about emotion and how games are full of it.

I recently read this short interview with Jason Rohrer (developer of ‘Passage’ and ‘Chain World’) in New Scientist magazine. In this interview he makes the following statement:

“Most of the emotions in mainstream games are things that happen in non-interactive movie sequences. You'll come to a point in the game where a little scene will play, where other characters in the game will come and talk to your character, or some character will die in a tragic moment. I see that as an uninteresting way of trying to deal with emotions in games.”

This is a sentiment I have seen before and is no way limited to just Jason. In a similar fashion I have had several of my friends who work in the film industry tell me that games don’t measure up to films emotion wise.

Personally I think both viewpoints sell games short. Games, even triple A block busters, in most cases do produce emotions and they mostly do so with their mechanics and the experience of playing the game – not via cut scenes.

First of all, and the most obvious, are the feelings and emotions associated with achievement and fun. The joy of achievement and control is one of the main reasons why we play games. In fact as I have pointed out to my film industry buddies, the feeling of achievement, of changing the (virtual) world, and of exerting change in general is not possible in film (Although a feeling of accomplishment can be gained if watching a film with a twisting plot or mystery). Mostly though, the feeling of changing a world is the domain of games and other forms of interactive media. It comes from playing the game.

Similarly Flow should be mentioned. This is the “feeling of energized focus, full involvement, and success in the process of the activity” that so many games manage to capture in their mechanics. While Flow has perhaps been a bit over discussed the importance of this feeling should not be underestimated. Flow is a feeling that people race cars, climb mountains and take other risks to achieve! Professional sports people are constantly chasing their next Flow experience. Yet you can get it sitting on the toilet playing Jetpack Joyride.

Next is the feeling of attachment. You only have to look at anywhere gamers gather online to show that many video game characters produce very strong feelings. These are people we feel strongly about that we feel happy to see and feel angry when they are abused (just ask any hurt fanboy).

Games can also amuse us. Whether this is through ridiculous situations and mechanics (Portal and Saints Row the Third spring to mind) or through the amazing emerging situations that gameplay mechanics allow for. In this last case I am talking about the emergent hilarity that can arise from systems interacting in an open world game (bugs perhaps in some cases, but still funny) or just the hilarity that can ensure when you get more than one person together interacting within a game system. How many of your favourite gaming stories start with “remember the time that we were playing online and Bob did X” followed by laughter at the strange or amusing chain of events that followed. Of course the humour in games is not for everyone but that holds for other media as well. At least until the Ultimate Joke is discovered.  

Looking at the list above you might be justified in saying 'Ah but these are all positive emotions! That isn’t much range of emotion now is it?' and perhaps you would even make a comment about 'positive emotions being shallow'. First to deal with the latter statement, nonsense, there is nothing shallow about positive emotion. The quest for positive emotion is a major guiding force in life. The first statement is correct however, but this is not were the story stops. Rather games can also produce negative emotions.

First of all there is fear. Again much like with humor, what is scary to some is not scary to others. For instance I can watch most horror films without blinking but many horror games can scare the bejeebus out of me. Ultimately though, the success of the survival horror genre and the whispered tone in which games like Amnesia are discussed offers further evidence that games can and do scare people. Along with fear is the more postive/negative mixed emotion of Thrill, of being on the edge, of being down to that last sliver of health and being uncertain you will survive. Surviving can lead to the positive feeling of achievement mentioned above, however failing can lead to the next negative emotion I want to discuss.

More often than scares games produce this emotion in us. This emotion being frustration or even anger. Mention of these terms can bring to mind a bad situation or a badly designed game. However, that is not always the case. You only have to at the success of Super Meat Boy or the ‘Souls’ series to see that there are many people out there willing to pay to be frustrated.It could be argued that it is probably that feeling of accomplishment at over coming the frustration brings that is in the end important but a period of frustration before accomplishment can make it so much sweeter (for some) and that fact is the game did make you feel frustrated way via its mechanics. More than this though there is also the anger that comes from being beaten in a multiplayer game only to get that sweet feeling of revenge. Furthermore, what about that characteristic feeling that can come along with tricking or deceiving an opponent? (or the feeling of failure when it goes wrong) or that moment of nervous tension and stress when you put your plan of action into action, not knowing if it will succeed or fail.

The examples above are in no way comprehensive, however, the fact is that games are by their nature experiences built on both cognition and emotion. As such, I feel that people sell games short when they say something like ‘Most of the emotions in mainstream games are things that happen in non-interactive movie sequences’. If this was truly the case we would just watch movies and games would have never evolved to be the huge passtime they are today (where were the non-interactive movie sequences in Pong? Yet I bet you still felt emotion when you played it, I know I did).

However, I get the feeling that what Jason is saying is that games can’t make you sad. He does after all use the example of the tragic moment in a cut scene. Well I have to admit, a game has never made me cry in game. Although, perhaps this is like scary and humorous games for others in that maybe I just haven’t found the right ‘sad’ game for me yet. I have certainly seen folks online talking about misting up in game. However, I will concede that in the sadness stakes big games often do resort to the non-interactive movie. I guess that is because one of the main ways to become sad is to have control taken away from you, to have situations forced upon you, and things taken away that you can’t prevent – a non-interactive sequence is then (not necessarily the best) way to do this. Much like at least some of the emotive impact of Jason’s game ‘Passage’ is from the non-interactive music and the changes that are forced upon you with as you advance.

In closing I would like to make it clear that the purpose of this article is not to attack Jason. He has done some cool things. Rather, these thoughts have been in my head for a while and it was just seeing his interview yesterday that prompted me to put them out into the world.

Ultimately what I want to say is don’t sell emotions in games short because you haven’t found the emotion you are after. Emotions are there in the gameplay, they are numerous and significant. However, that is also not to say there isn’t room to grow and find new ways for emotions to be expressed via gameplay. 

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