PTD Original

IN|10 Feature: Emotional Engagement in Games

Can video games make you cry?

That was the question being asked at an Interactive Exchange 2010 panel I attended on Monday.  Admittedly, the conversation was made somewhat awkward, as panelist Mathew Kumar pointed out, by being an exploration of games as emotionally engaging objects, but also an exploration of how the games industry can exploit such engagements with those objects.   What is required for the industry to tap into potential consumers looking for emotionally stimulating experiences?  Are producers ignoring the female audience by not pushing themselves to find ways to engage the audience emotionally?

If framing such questions this way made the conversation come uncomfortably close to essentializing  women as slaves to their emotions, the potential answers were grounded in hardcore gamer faith in technology, a kind of digital machismo.  Would more emotionally engagement come from advanced motion capture techniques that allowed for more realistic character movement, or from putting more emphasis on facial animations to make characters easier to relate to, or from emphasizing detailed graphics that could create more atmospheric environments?

Emma Westecott, professor of Games Design at Toronto’s OCAD University, provided an interesting take by suggesting that games may not need advanced photo realism to be emotionally engaging.  Referencing cartoons and abstracted animation, she stated:

You just need an abstract object like a circle and two dots to make a face.  Part of our physiology is being able to extrapolate that and create an emotional relationship to a very primitive shape or object… I sometimes wonder if that would actually be a stronger return point for games: to go the opposite direction from realism, to go towards a much more abstract space where you can focus on the flow of the game maybe, and look at setting up the dynamics and not be distracted by this chase towards a notion of super-realism…

I do think that it can be a mistake to throw lots of big money chasing a false aim when that craft or that art can be achieved with much lower production values.  I’d encourage everybody to have a look at the games being made at the edge or the periphery.  There is lots of experimental stuff happening there which is addressing some of these questions in much more of a naïve and almost successful way in terms of the type of experience they can provide.

Westecott furthered this idea by explaining how the game she felt most emotionally engaged by recently was a smaller scale title from Tale of Tales called The Path.

The game that has haunted me the most over the last year was made quite cheaply…  It didn’t make me cry if we are using that as a benchmark, but it’s something that haunted me and stayed with me because of how it speaks to my personal life experience…

What’s interesting to me about The Path is that it’s a reimagining of Little Red Riding Hood.  You have six girls and the point is to kill them, to find their wolves.  As a female gamer, it reminded me of growing up, because part of growing up is losing your child.  So the multiple deaths that this particular game invokes reminds me of a period of life I thought I’d forgotten.  It haunted me because it reminded me of that transition.  Whether it is a game or not, whether the artists claim its ‘gameness’ is very much up for grabs, but it exceeded this in terms of how it affected me…  but that’s just a personal recognition.  Lots of people have played it and a few have been really frustrated with the pace of it and haven’t had that type of connection.  That’s why it’s so hard, the question we’re addressing.  You talk about the context of how games are made but it’s also the context of how they are played.   We all have a different life history which means we bring different ways of making meaning from our gaming experiences.

This arguably makes a case for games as cultural objects.  As much as we associate popular culture with mass-produced output of huge media corporations, its origins and its literal interpretation still refer to the culture of the people – the things and practices people create or use to communicate meanings, values, fantasies and fears in their daily lives.

Thinking about the issue of emotional engagement in games with this in mind should provide the opportunity to alter the focus of creators.  For them, it should be less about creating expensive, overbearing and targeted emotional titles that try to direct an audience how to feel, and more about emphasizing accessibility and acceptability of their products, therefore providing the means for more people to not only experience games but to make their own personal, emotional connections to the material offered.

Finally, addressing the initial question, I don’t recall any games ever making me cry.  That being said, bringing down the towering monsters in Shadow of the Colossus has left me sad, and seeing “111 hours played” in my Elder Scrolls IV: Oblivion stats has stimulated feelings of geek conceit in me.   You better believe I’m the Hero of Kvatch, saviour of Bruma and the new goddamn Gray Fox…  Without emotional attachment to those labels, I’m not sure such an investment would be tolerable.

Special thanks to Toronto Thumbs for providing the photograph.  Check out their feature on the IN10 keynote address by Prince of Persia creator Jordan Mechner.


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