Musings: Video Games and Our Emotions
July 2, 2010 1 Comment
We talk a lot about a game’s ability to elicit some sort of emotional response from its player, a phenomenon largely attributed to the maturing of the medium in the past several years. You know the kind of games I’m talking about: Heavy Rain, Shadow of the Colossus, Mass Effect 2, Grand Theft Auto IV. These are experiences that immerse you in a world, build a bond between yourself and the characters and then have some sort of tragedy befall them, or at the least create the possibility of such an event.
The negative emotional response these trigger have been held up as a peak of our medium’s emotional resonance and a goal set by many in hopes of advancing it beyond escapist entertainment. At the 2004 Game Developers Conference ngmoco co-founder Neil Young, an EA executive at the time, famously promised that a video game will make you cry within the next five years and it would be a massive moment for the industry. Similarly, Steven Spielberg, an industry proponent, once said regarding video games as a legitimate story telling medium, “I think the real indicator will be when somebody confesses that they cried at level 17.”
What’s with all this emphasis on games making you cry? The spectrum of human emotional responses is immeasurable. Sadness and fear and their corresponding responses, only make up one side of things.
The truth is games have been evoking emotional responses since their humble beginnings. That feeling of pride you get when you clear four lines at once in Tetris? Yep, that’s an emotional response. The frustration of dying over and over again in those damn airship levels in the last world of Super Mario Bros 3? That’s one too.
So what’s the problem here? Games have been creating satisfaction and frustration, two legitimate emotional responses, since the very beginning. In fact, I would argue that the very reason we play games is the feeling of satisfaction that comes with accomplishing something within one. It’s a quick and dirty burst of success, something to make us feel good without much physical effort.
Where things get mixed up is that whole story-telling thing. By combining games with a narrative structure, something the majority of them now include, we change the expected emotional responses based on our experiences with other media. Only then does making the player cry become the yard stick for legitimacy.
I’m not saying emotional resonance that powerful isn’t an important goal — I believe quite the opposite in fact — but it’s important to make the distinction between the types of emotions games make us feel. The ones Spielberg and Young spoke to can be accomplished in any medium and, arguably, by easy manipulation. Just ask a pet owner to watch Marley and Me. That piece of trash movie is guaranteed to make them cry, but is there a prevailing satisfaction that comes with actually watching the film? Of course not. Only games can offer both.