In the survey Videogames: The Impact of Emotion, Bowen Research asked a bunch of gamers to rank the emotional impact on a number of art forms. The art forms were ranked from 1 to 6 and here’s the result:
- Video/PC games
So, movies, music and books all play our emotional strings more efficiently than video games. Surprised? I’m not… However, we should remember that video games are interactive narratives (whatever that means) rather than linear ones, like books and movies. It is also probably true that interaction (or rather agency) helps dragging you into a story and helps building immersion and that immersion is opening up shortcuts to emotions (sort of). I won’t get into the properties of interaction, immersion or agency but in short, I believe video games should be able to top that list. So why is that not the case?
Emotional impact of different game genres
Let’s first take a look at game genres. The people participating in Bowen’s were also asked to rank game genres? The top four genres that people considered “emotionally powerful” were:
- 78% – Role playing games
- 52% – First person shooters
- 49% – Action
- 48% – Adventure
That Role Playing Games (RPGs) are high on the list does not surprise me much. After all, the games that traditionally are most focused on story are RPGs. What does surprise me, however, is that there is such a gap to First Person Shooters (FPS) that come in second. When talking about the first person style of games, one usually stress the enormous immersive power of the first person perspective. That in itself I imagine would make up for a lot of emotional power. But, given that FPS-games are also traditional suckers when it comes to story (with a few exceptions, naturally) it is perhaps not so strange at all. If the immersive power of the FPS is as strong as many thinks, this means that there is a lot of untapped potential for storytelling in first person shooter games. But perhaps is isn’t the quality of the typical FPS story that is the problem here…
Let’s look further down the genre list and see if there are some answers…
An interesting thing about the Bowen survey is that the Adventure game genre, which is often very story heavy, come far behind the RPG, and even behind the FPS and Action genres. Adventure games are not very popular nowadays (although I have a feeling that a revival is coming) and that may account somewhat for the bad score. However, apart from that, adventure games are story heavy. They also often tell rather good story, so I sense that there is something other than plain storytelling that is the key to emotional power. Maybe there is something else than the plot of a movie that makes us weep…
Well, of course there is! It is called “Empathy”.
That RPG games scored high in the survey could probably be somewhat attributed to Final Fantasy VII which has a story moment which many refer to as the most emotionally engaging moment in gaming history (people who were playing games during the Dark Ages of Text would probably say that the death of Floyd in Planetfall was the first such moment). Nevertheless, I believe that RPGs generally are more successful than other games making players feel empathy for game characters.
In RPG games, the core of the gameplay is that you have one (or more) characters that you nurture and evolve. You level them up and supply them with better weapons, shields, clothes and equipment. You teach them skills and use those skills to advance through the game. In short, you invest quite a lot of time and effort creating your character(s). That the character(s) you create becomes dear and valuable to you is no real surprise, and it is much easier to feel empathy for someone dear and precious.
There are, of course, examples of games that have a different approach. In the game ICO, for example, we connect with the girl through different mechanics. In ICO, we need to constantly watch over her lest the ghosts catch her and the game is over. The girl also helps the player find his way and solve puzzles by giving subtle clues. And not the least, when you move around in the game you have to hold her hand to get her come along. Holding her hand is a familiar and warm gesture that we instantly recognize and feel good about. We connect with her through the hand of the little boy.
It should be said that not all players enjoy the design choices in ICO. For many, the girl is stereotypically and bluntly portrayed. She is helpless and meek and the game communicates sexist prejudice. I can definitely see the point. It is important to realize that if such things become issues for players, no mechanics in the world can save the day. All chances to communicate emotionally strong content instantly vanishes.
Emotional impact in First Person Shooters
An important property of empathy is that one cannot feel empathy for oneself. Empathy is the ability to imagine oneself in another person’s situation – to be able to feel with her. To do so naturally requires that there is another person present to feel empathy for. In many RPG games, we have a set of “puppet characters” that we play with and invest in. Gradually we become more and more attached to those characters.
The FPS genre is often described as the most immersive game genre and I believe that to be true. I also believe that a player who is immersed in a game is an “easier target” for emotionally powerful stuff. The problem is only that the “emotional stuff” we have seen so far in FPS games is quite primitive. Feelings of rage, anger, fear and frustration are all emotions that can be conveyed to the player with some ease, thanks to the extremely immersive nature of the FPS.
However, more complex emotions requiring that we feel empathy, like sorrow, is a different story. My argument is that in a FPS, the player is impersonating the player character (PC) and the ability to feel empathy towards the PC is thus impossible. For an FPS to be emotionally complex, a lot of effort therefore must go into creating non player characters that populate the game world. This must be characters that has the same value as player characters in RPGs. The player will need friends and enemies in the FPS game world that he/she can invest time and effort in, through game play mechanics and story narrative. Those characters must mean something to the player.
One might think that creating a first person RPG would be the ideal solution to the problem, but that is missing the point. Sure, there are aspects of RPGs that is transferrable to the first person perspective. The immersive nature of the first person perspective also adds a lot of realism and emotional impact. But if we truly wants the player to start sobbing when a character dies on-screen; the game world and its inhabitants – not the player character – needs much, much more attention.