April 21, 2006


by Andrew Stern · , 2:10 pm

While I appreciate the “rah-rah, boo-hoo, emotion in games!” cheerleading in this week’s The Escapist — I too am all for creating more affective interactive experiences — let’s get real about the status quo of gaming’s expressiveness, please?

There are many games that tell stories as you play along. Many of these stories have characters with dramatic or melodramatic character arcs, most often fantasy-based. A willing player can let themselves be immersed in these pretty much linear stories, allowing their imaginations to emphathize with the characters, to point they can cry if they wish. That’s perfectly fine — you’ll find no criticism here for anyone who willingly and actively immerses themselves in a linear story. The fact that you have to interact a bit, to essentially turn to the next page of this mostly linear story, can, for those willing, enhance the feeling of immersion and therefore heighten the emotions felt. The occasional, essentially multiple-choice, even binary-choice morality questions posed to you as you “turn the pages” can feel meaningful if you want to believe in them. I should point out, the primary reason such players are feeling emotional is due to the devices of good-ol’-fashioned storytelling (call it “GOFST”, a la GOFAI), with emphasis on telling — not because of interactivity.

To date, actual interactive experiences where you are having a true, significant effect on the events in virtual world (aka agency), have successfully made us feel a variety of emotions: visceral thrills like fear, danger, the rush of speed, the awe of spectacle; the pleasure and agony of solving puzzles; power fantasies (no doubt about it, blowing shit up is fun); feelings of accomplishment or ownership after achieving a goal that required a lot of work, or creating some customized content; feelings of comradery with fellow human players; and, my most familiar elicited emotion from games, intense frustration.

That’s not a short list. However, a virtual reality check I’d like to make is: only a minority of players are emotionally moved by today’s games, or yesterday’s, beyond the feelings in the above list. To believe or hope otherwise suggests to me a lack of a wider critical eye of what human expression via art-making has been proven to be capable of in other media — feelings and ideas elicited in ways particular or unique to each medium, and presumably particular/unique ways possible in this new interactive digital medium.

I’m not trying to be elitist about today’s games, I’m just trying to not be overly escapist about them either. Roger Ebert is right (1 2 3 4), at least about the status quo of games.

Games have not yet given us, in ways distinct from GOFST — e.g. using agency as its primary emotion-eliciting device — experiences that elicit emotions such as: true comradery with virtual characters, strong feelings of friendship, caring, family, love, lust; feelings of a true moral dilemma where your actions really mean something to you personally, and will be a significant reflection of your own character and morality; subsequent feelings of regret or guilt, or pride or goodwill, as a result of how you handled the dilemma. I could list more, but you know what I mean.

We’ve seen glimmers of some of these emotions, such as feelings of caring for virtual pets and pet-like characters such as the Sims — propelling the studios that created these games into the top 5 of 100 most commercially successful — but strong versions of these feelings are definitely still in the minority of players. Virtual characters are still too shallow, and are still too incapable listen to us deeply, for us to feel much for them or be moved by them, in fact we tend to abuse them (1 2 3).

And that’s the heart of why almost no one cries when playing games: games barely allow us to express ourselves to them yet, so how or why could we feel affection, friendship, regret or loss in return?

Once we’ve found “the new GOFST” as it were, then the population at large will break out the tissues and play misty.