Future Cinema

Course Site for Future Cinema 1 (and sometimes Future Cinema 2: Applied Theory) at York University, Canada

“How Games Move Us: Emotion by Design” by Katherine Isbister (2016)

Posted on | October 25, 2016 | No Comments

Katherine Isbister, author of “How Games Move Us: Emotion By Design” (2016), argues that games have the capacity to create empathy in the user. Virtual experiences like video games, and VR, employ technology and interaction design to simulate or replicate experiences of the real. VR and gaming both have many useful applications, though – as Isbister would argue – we are perhaps still in the early stages of understanding the full range of potential uses that games and VR have for teaching, learning, bonding, and to facilitate social change. However, as Isbister argues, the transformative power of social frameworks for play can lead to increased personal growth and connection.

Isbister’s research examines how games create emotion, and she is particularly concerned with how movement-based games use design to create emotion and connection. She asks what do games contribute? How do they move us, and why? Isbister argues that not enough has been done to interrogate games, or to formulate gaming literacy, asserting not only that we take games for granted, but that a language for gaming literacy and criticism is valuable and necessary (xvi). She argues that a Renaissance in gaming is occuring, and the cultural conversation needs to catch up (xvii); she asserts that we need a critical language for gaming literacy, because “games can actually play a powerful role in creating empathy and other strong, positive emotional experiences” (xvii).

Isbister identifies two qualities of games that differentiate games from other media: choice, and flow (xviii). The aspect of choice is a factor that allows players to make meaningful decisions that influence the outcome of the game (2). Actions with consequences are built into games, providing choices that unlock potential for new gaming experiences. The opportunity to make meaningful choices activates the areas of the brain associated with motivation and reward (3); it allows for the state of “flow” that psychology researcher Mihaly Csikzentmilhalyi identified as “a pleasurable, optimal performance state” found in games (4). For Isbister, flow theory helps to provide understanding for the emotional capacity and power of games (5). To achieve optimal flow, game designers employ highly crafted strategies and techniques to create intimacy which facilitates social emotion and connection. Social emotion is primarily established via three design innovations: avatars, non-player characters, and character customization (1-2).

Avatars are a visual projection of one’s character established as an onscreen protagonist and performed by the user. As a design element they ground a player’s identification in the role play, offering action possibilities at multiple psychological levels (11-12). Avatar characters are projected on four different levels: visceral, cognitive, social, and fantasy (11), and may be constructed in the first-person, or third-person view. As with the formal properties of cinema and other visual arts, the first-person point of view allows a deeper level of immersion in the avatar experience. The addition of non-player characters in the game provide support, resistance and add character, while also facilitating social experience beyond “para-social” feelings (20). Meanwhile, character customization also encourages emotional identification and connection in the gamer, as characters and environments can be fully customized and personalized (32).

Designers furthermore employ techniques to bridge distance and establish intimacy, including: “parasocial interaction” – the formation of powerful attachments to characters cultivated through strategic design (7); “grounded cognition” – the area of psychology that describes the cognitive process that occurs when we see a social experience and our brains believe that a real social experience is occurring (8); and “game mechanics” – actions that a player can take that changes the game state (10). These elements combine to create complicity in the gamer. As Brenda Brathwaite Romero (creator of Train) has stated, “the power of a game lies in its ability to bring us close to the subject. There is no other medium that has this power” (10).

Isbister argues: “At the root of the emotional power of games lies the fact that games are comprised of choices with consequences” (40). Players make their own choices and experience their consequences, and game designers have unique powers to evoke emotions typically not accessed in other media (40-41). While avatars allow us to experience the game, non-player characters allow us to interact in the game in meaningful, emotional ways, and customization options encourage player projection and emotional attachment (41). We then respond to social cues as if they are real. These conditions result in deep awareness and agency in the game experience, which facilitates an increased awareness of responsibility, and furthermore increased awareness of the complexity of oneself, in relation to others (41). In addition to these design factors, multiplayer games provide further opportunities for emotional connection, aided by the fact that the majority of games played are with others rather than played alone (43). Isbister identifies three “building blocks” that designers of social digital games use to evoke rich emotional responses in players. These are: coordinated action, role-play, and the development of social situations, for as Isbister asserts, the process of overcoming challenging situations is deeply satisfying and bonding experience for us all (45). As she states, opportunities for coordinated action “leads to greater feelings of connectedness, mutual liking, and rapport” (45); “when people play together, the game transforms into real social interaction” (52).

“Taking on a virtual self in a multiplayer setting brings the gaze and expectations of other players to bear on a player’s adopted in-game identity. When I perform another self in the presence of other people, all of us are engaged in actual real-time social interaction taking place through the lens of this playacting. At the same time, we are also immersed in our own role performance viscerally and cognitively. This opens up the possibility for powerful emotional experiences that arise out of a co-performance of roles while engaging in rich, genuine shared experiences” (Isbister, 52-53).

In multiplayer games, designers act as social engineers to create social situations (63). Building on her argument for increased literacy in game design, Isbister asserts that “players can become highly engaged, even transformed, when they inhabit avatars and interact in social gameplay, however artificial and fantastic their digital “virtual” surroundings may be. Game designers are, in effect, molding our social milieu and the way we build ties with one another, as well as shaping how we see ourselves” (70). In addition, games provide contexts for “forming real and meaningful relationships through role-play,” and can become a part of a person’s lasting identity (70). This capacity signifies the transformative power of gaming which, as Isbister argues, all other mediums lack (71).

For Isbister, digital game designers and developers are now at the forefront of new innovations in bodily engagement (73). Her own research seeks to understand how movement itself impacts game players (75). She specifically examines how player emotions differ in movement-based play vs controller-based play (79). Emotional contagion based on body movements provides two advantages, as those watching will share the emotions being demonstrated physically; while avatars and NPCs create feelings in players (79), potentially triggering strong social and emotional experiences (89). However, Isbister notes, the mutual gaze is required for enhanced bonding and mutual good feeling, and it specifically arises from coordinated physical activity: “the more players look at each other, the better results they achieve in coordination and the stronger the lingering positive social effects” (96). Therefore, adding movement strengthens a player’s identification with a character by leveraging physical enactment (102), as our bodies dramatically shape our emotional experience (107).

Networked media provides the element of “ubiquitous connection” which “has dramatically changed how we communicate with one another on a day-to-day basis, shaping how we understand community and copresence. […] Game developers have interwoven networked communication and the sense of copresence it creates deep in the experiences that they offer players today” (109). Social bonding, therefore, is tied to self-reliance in challenging environments, while shared online experiences encourage personal growth in players and deepen players’ connection to one another, illustrating game designers’ capacity to design “supportive environments for emotional and social growth” (118). This fact alone should garner a higher level of respect for game designers as architects of collective play for community building (122), Isbister argues, especially when embedded in social frameworks for collective action (123).


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