Not all emotions are created equal.
Consider: It is a distinctly different thing to feel sad while reading about a dying mother than to actually feel sad because your mother is dying. The former is a shadowy reflection that we intuitively understand is not immediately threatening. The later is raw, primary and life changing.
I’ve yet to see existing terminology for this phenomena, so at the risk of stepping on existing toes, let’s use the following labels.
- Shadow emotions: The emotions we feel when partaking in narratives, art and other safely evocative stimuli
- Primary emotions: The emotions we feel when we are in a situation with real perceived consequences.
The closest I’ve seen to this being described elsewhere is something called the Somatic Marker Theory. It postulates:
“When we make decisions, we must assess the incentive value of the choices available to us, using cognitive and emotional processes. When we face complex and conflicting choices, we may be unable to decide using only cognitive processes, which may become overloaded and unable to help us decide. In these cases (and others), somatic markers can help us decide. Somatic markers are associations between reinforcing stimuli that induce an associated physiological affective state.”
Crucially, the theory identify two distinct classes of emotion. The first is the ‘body loop’ which corresponds closely to primary emotions. The second is the ‘as-if body loop’ which corresponds to shadow emotions.
No doubt this is a well studied topic, so if someone educated in the neurosciences is able to provide even more accurate labels or links to additional models I’ll happily amend this essay.
The distinction between these two classes of emotion may seem academic, but I find myself fascinated by a game’s ability to provoke primary emotions in a manner that is difficult if not impossible for more reflective forms of media. As a game designer, I can and have put the player in situation where they experience real loss. The best a movie or book can manage is evoking a shadow of loss.
Brief thoughts on memory and emotion
A small bit of background is necessary to describe the mechanism of shadow emotions. It starts with the link between memory and emotion.
Memories come loaded with judgments. In some sense, the true function of memory has been polluted by a modern concept of coldly analytic ‘data storage’. Perhaps a better term for ‘memory’ is ‘lesson’. Each memory has deeply integrated emotional tags that informs us of how we might want to react if we call upon that memory in relation to our current stimuli. When you see a dog sitting on the sidewalk, you instinctively compare it to your existing mental models and memories of past dogs. In that basic act of cognition, you nearly instantly become awash with emotions. Perhaps you feel a sense of comfort and fondness. Or perhaps a wave of anxiety passes through you as you recall the sharp teeth of past encounters gone awry. In a split second, you know exactly how you feel about that dog.
One way of thinking of emotion as an early specialized form of cognition that serves a clear survival function. Quite often you need to make a decision, but you don’t have time to think about. Quick! Act now! At this moment, you are flooded with an emotional signal. It is strong, primitive and highly effective at making you either run, attack, bond, threaten or pause. Emotions tied to memories help us boil vast decades of experience down into an immediate instinctive reaction.
Hair trigger emotions exists because more complex cognition takes time and for certain classes of decision, delays yield failure and failure is costly. If you are attacked by wolf, it likely isn’t prudent to debate the finer details of how you classify canids. Much later, be it seconds or hours, your conscious understanding of the situation kicks in and moderates the emotional response. More often than not, what we think of as consciousness is little more than a post processed justification of our ongoing roller coaster of instinctive emotional reactions.
Emotions are necessary but they are not civilized. It is easy to imprint rapid fire lessons that trigger at the worst possible moment. A child who learns to lash out in anger as a way of surviving neighborhood bullies might have difficulty as an adult if he reacts the same way when he perceives a more subtle theme of bullying from his boss. What makes managing emotions so tricky is that such emotional triggering situations unfold before we are even aware they are occurring. Emotions are by definition lessons turned into lightning, unconscious action (or inaction as the case may be).
Narrative as a means of playing emotional scenarios
You cannot easily or consciously stop emotions in full activation; however you can train them ahead of time. One method (of many!) is to test and explore our emotions in the safe mediums of narrative, sound and imagery. The mechanism for triggering a safe emotional response seems to be primarily based off a mixture of empathy and the emotional aspects of memory that we’ve previously covered.
- Stimuli: When we see or read a particular evocative narrative or scene.
- Memory: We tap into our own related stored memories
- Synthesis: We assemble disparate elements into a coherent whole
- Empathy: We simulate what we might feel in this particular situation
- Conscious understanding: We process the resulting safe emotions from a safe distance.
Now imagine that you read about the dog sitting on the sidewalk. You can confront your anxiety with crystal clear understanding that he cannot hurt you. You activate your empathy and simulate how you might feel if the dog were in fact in front of you. Now you roll the emotion around and savor it, examining it from multiple angles. You instinctively role-play the scenario. Perhaps you become comfortable with the idea that you don’t need to immediately run away from all dogs. By storing this revised impression, you slightly moderate your future emotional reactions.
In a biological sense, this is a surprisingly inexpensive method of practicing how to moderate our emotions. Instead of placing yourself in potentially mortal danger, you can instead read about what it while sitting in a chair. The training that occurs is not perfect, but I suspect that it helps. There is a wide body of experimental research that shows how emotions are differentiated through a process of psychological response and then the application of a cognitive label. If you can practice labeling a rush of adrenaline as bravery instead of fear, you may be able to successfully alter your emotions in real world situations.
Though by no means proof of this theory, it is suggestive that many popular fictional and artistic works are highly focused on evoking emotion and chains of strong drama. Situations that are risky, expensive or socially compromising regularly find their way into the evocative arts and enable us to practice those scenarios in a safe fashion.
The relatively safe emotions that result from consuming and simulating evocative stimuli are what I’m calling shadow emotions.
A shadow emotion is by no means a ‘fake’ emotion. Your heart rate increases, your palms sweat. The patterns of the past carry echos of real emotions and your body responds accordingly. All the physiological signs of experiencing an emotion are present. However, you know intellectually it is a carefully controlled experiment. Despite hysterical claims to the contrary, humans appear to have a surprisingly robust understanding of simulation vs. reality. We labels our simulations as such and can usually set them aside at our convenience.
Shadow emotions are by no means completely safe. Anyone that goes through a therapeutic process where they directly recall past trauma can bear witness to the fact that recalling strong emotions is an intense and even frightening experience. Distance matters when role-playing stored emotions and the more closely you simulate the original event, the stronger the response.
All this leads to many of the common techniques found in making powerful drama or art. This list is by no comprehensive, but it is a good sample of the practical tools available to a craftsman interested evoking shadow emotions:
- Richly describe salient stimuli
- Exaggerate stimuli (Peak Shift Principle)
- Layer multiple channels of stimuli
- Target commonly shared emotional triggers (Love, Death, Triumph, etc)
- Create coherent chains of context and causation to facilitate easy simulation
- Personalize the stimuli to better match the emotional history of an individual.
As an artist, a story teller and a game designer, I’ve used all of these and they are far less mysterious than many would presume. When such techniques are well executed, you’ll increase the intensity of the evoked shadow emotion. The word ‘evoke’ is key since our concern is more about using a signal to trigger emotions that already exists. As such I think of these techniques clumped primarily into methods of simplifying processing our evocative signal or methods of increasing strength of that signal.
Shadow emotions absolutely exist in games. In fact, the game industry spends ludicrous sums of money attempting to ensure that high end console titles are as good at evoking shadow emotions as media such as movies or books. During the dark reign of the techno-cultists who preached the ascendancy of visual immersion, realism and games as predominantly narrative medium, a thousand chained craftsmen made heroic attempts to evoke stronger shadow emotions. See such baroque creations as Mortal Combat, God of War or L.A. Noire. This expensive pursuit will continue because humans crave shadow emotions as a path to more effective emotional cognition. Game developers, as paid schmucks making disposable and consumable media, have an economic incentive to fill this need.
The next time you safely experience the emotion of shooting a minority-skinned terrorist in the head and watching the beautifully rendered blood and brains splatter in slow motion, step back and consider the emotional role-playing that you are simulating. It obviously isn’t real, but you do feel something. Perhaps it is even therapeutic. These are shadow emotions in action. I remain unimpressed, but perhaps if we render those skull fragments at a higher resolution, AAA games will one day achieve something deeply meaningful.
Primary emotions in games
In this expensive pursuit of shadow emotions, we may have accidentally sidelined deeper exploration of a phenomena more fundamental to the emotional capabilities of games.
I spend large portions of my day observing game players. Some of this is observation of others, but there is also a peculiar detached observation of my own reactions to a particular game or prototype. Repeatedly, I see sparkles of emotion that seem to have different roots than shadow emotions. A player might become frustrated that they don’t understand a particular level layout. Or they may feel anguish when their character suffers permadeath in Realm of the Mad God. Or they may feel elation at finally getting the long tetrimino necessary to clear four rows in Tetris.
I would make the bold and perhaps unsupportable claim that these responses are not a reference to a past emotional experience. Instead they seem to be derived from much more primitive circuitry. Where do emotions originally come from? Not all are reflections of memories past. There are means of creating emotions from scratch.
Consider the sense of anguish that one feels when the character you’ve built up over many hours of dedicated play dies for all eternity. This system, permadeath, is quite uncommon in many modern games, but thousands of players go through the process everyday in the game Realm of the Mad God. As a designer you can think of this experience in almost purely mechanical terms. A player invests time and energy into accumulating a resources and capabilities inside a defined value structure. Then due mostly to a failure of skill, the player gets hit with a barrage of bullets and that investment is irretrievably lost.
Despite the coldly mechanistic nature of the system, the player feels intense anguish. It is a raw, primordial thing that courses through your veins and makes breathing difficult. There is really nothing playful or distant about this emotion. The magnitude and newness of the loss directly correlates to the intensity of the experience. Most players I know have great difficulty setting aside the first major loss and pretending that it did not matter. Some will even quit the game because the emotional intensity is just too much to bear.
What I find intriguing about this particular emotion reaction is that it pops up in other non-gaming scenarios. Recently I forgot to save a file and in one horrible instant lost hours of labor. The self recrimination and sense of loss is quite similar. In a more extreme example, when the stock market collapsed in the 1920’s the emotional response to abrupt and permanent loss was so great that people took to jumping from buildings. The systemic creation of emotion is a powerful phenomena.
There are variations on the theme that result in a spectrum of different yet equally reproducible emotions. If the player is struck with lag or a control glitch or they feel that some other player helped cause their demise, the emotional reaction is almost always incandescent rage. Small adjustments to the mechanical systems of cause and effect result in distinct emotional responses.
Primary emotions appear to be emotions triggered by interactive situations not evocative stimuli. They tend to involve several telling mechanical factors:
- Investment and Loss
- Skill and Randomness
- Social interaction
As I write this list, I can’t help but realize that these sound like many of the fundamental elements of games. Yes, we can still talk about games-as-systems when we start talking about emotions. There is no need to scurry back to the well worn tropes of evocative media. As game developers, we really do not need the crutch of shadow emotions to create a meaningful emotional experience for our players. Instead, we can succeed by making “games as games” not “games as some bizarrely crippled copy of another industry.”
I wish I could say more about the exact biological process behind generating primary emotions, but alas it is not my area of expertise. Instead, the best I can do for the moment is to describe the pragmatic process that I use to create desired primary emotions in a population of players. Compare the following process to the one I listed above for shadow emotions. They are rather different.
- Define: Create mechanics and models that describe a player-centric system of value. What should the player care about and how do the systems and resources reinforce their interest?
- Acclimate the player to value structures by having them interact with it repeatedly via various loops and processes. Pay careful attention to skill and resource acquisition as well as the formation of social bonds since these must be grown.
- Trigger: Put the player directly in situations involve a practical loss or gain that triggers the generation of new primary emotions.
- Label: Apply labels or context to the raw emotion so that players interpret it in the desired fashion. See the two-factor theory of emotion for examples of how contextual labels can transform a base physiological response into a myriad of subtle emotions.
You can certainly use evocative stimuli within such a process, but it will always be a supporting tool. The emotions are engineered from the players interactions and experience with the system and not by bombarding someone with images, dialog or sound. Player choice matters. Failure matters. Learning and skill matters. The game matters.
My friend Stephane Bura has done important work in mapping game systems onto emotions, but there is far more to be done. I highly recommend you read through his pioneering essay Emotion Engineering in Games. It took several years before it started to sink in, but I’m hoping that you’ll have a head start.
I’ve derived immense practical value from the distinction between primary emotions and shadow emotions. Once you’ve internalized the concept, you can look at a game and ask with great clarity “How is this player emotion being generated?” Once you know the mechanism, you can then take steps to amplify or soften the observed effect. Should you increase the fidelity of visual feedback or merely change a resource variable? If you know neither the type of emotion nor mechanism driving the emotion, you are designing blindly.
It is also important that we start talking about how games generate primary emotions. The feeling of victory in a game of Chess is real. The feeling of anger at a Counter Strike camper is real and visceral. The feeling of belonging when you are asked to join a popular guild will stay with you for the rest of your life. We are not reflecting or empathizing (though this can occur in parallel). Due to the interactive nature of the game and our ability to adopt the value structure of the game, there are consequences that are real enough for our body to muster actual new-to-the-world emotions. This is an amazing and fundamental property of games that is at best weakly represented in more traditional media. Let’s play to our strengths.
Every second you spend blathering on about the damnable Hero’s Journey or the role of traditional evocative narrative is a second you could instead be exploring the vast and uncharted frontier of emotional game design. We make games. And games are great and powerful entities in their own right. What happens if you strip out as much of your reliance on shadow emotions as possible and focus your design efforts on creating primary emotions in your players?
In Realm of the Mad God, the player dies. And he can’t come back. It is a harsh penalty with strong sense of failure. Colliding with a 8×8 pixelated bullet with no fidelity, realism or crafted narrative means something emotionally that no movie or novel will ever capture.
(Edited July 11, 2011 to include a reference to Somatic Marker Theory)
(Edited September 12, 2011 to include a reference to Two-factor Theory of Emotion)
- Somatic Marker Theory: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Somatic_markers_hypothesis
- The Jungle of the Real by Charles Pratt: What do you feel when you play the game of boxing?: http://gamedesignadvance.com/?p=1796
- Emotion Engineering in Games by Stephane Bura: http://www.stephanebura.com/emotion/
- Constructing Artificial Emotions by Daniel Cook: https://www.gamasutra.com/view/feature/1992/constructing_artificial_emotions_.php?print=1