Tuesday, June 2, 2009

Engineering Emotions: More predictions come to pass


Back in 2007, I wrote about some hypothetical technologies like real time motion capture, voice recognition and biosensors that were on the horizon that would have  a dramatic impact on how we design emotional games.  Those technologies are now becoming mainstream with console accessories like Microsoft Natal and the Wii Vitality Sensor.  Others techniques like feeding player's input into internet API's like search and social networks are already easily implemented using basic capabilities available to even the most limited game devices on the market. 
In the essay Constructing Artificial Emotions, I described a 'crazy' futuristic game design called Bacchus: 
"Bacchus is a multiplayer dancing game with a religious theme. The selling point is its ability to evoke intense emotions.

Imagine if you will, a decrepit theater filled with writhing, dancing people. The lights flare and swoop in time and the people chant in unison. A massive screen shows a mirror image of the hall like some surrealistic portal into an alternate universe. Instead of blokes and lasses in street clothes, the on screen spirits are clad in ornate ritualistic garb. The movements on each side of screen are eerily synchronized. The pitch of the chant rises.

The screen zooms in on a girl in the center of the room. The crowd, as one, turns and watches her figure on the screen. She begins to dance. At first her movement is controlled and intricate. The screen pulsates and she yells to its beat. The room takes up her words and amplifies them, giving them god-like resonance. Bass mixed with reverb mixed with primal, guttural passion. Her dance becomes wild. The pace increases and she begins to confess.

The theater reacts. Each word she utters shimmers on screen, merging with ghostly photos from her past. In a beat, the entire room witnesses her sorrow over the death of her mother, her time alone in an empty apartment, and her first kiss. An inhumanly beautiful electronic chorus rises, matches and turns her words into a song. Her movements become a blur. Her glowing eyes are ecstatic. At the peak, her spirit on the large screen explodes in light and the girl collapses to the floor in fervent religious swoon.

The crowd goes wild. The screen zooms out and the next god dancer is chosen. 

Later, the girl writes to her online friends that the night she danced was the single most powerful spiritual and emotional experience in her entire life. It was the night she was touched by a higher power while playing a video game."
(
http://www.gamasutra.com/view/feature/1992/constructing_artificial_emotions_.php)

The original essay is an admittedly difficult read, but I recommend revisiting it.  In short, psychological experiments show that by intentionally mixing physical states of excitement with the appropriate context a designer can concoct emotional responses that are indistinguishable from naturally occurring emotions. The design techniques described within are no longer futuristic daydreaming.  A basic form of Bacchus could be made in the next few years. 
In the past games have been limited in the types of responses they can evoke in players because the range of human activities that we could model and reward were limited.  We've admittedly designed amazing experiences that only rely on the limited ability to press a button.  However, a cursory inventory of the human body and mind is surprisingly more comprehensive than a twitching thumb.  We can move our amazing and capable bodies, we can engage in complex social interactions, we can become excited or depressed.  All these basic elements of our humanity have been outside the realm of game design because we could not track them, build models around them or reward desired behaviors. 
Now we can. 
With these new tools and a mass market that embraces them, we have a vast laboratory of millions of players.  Early mini-games will act as experiments in the engineering of human emotions.  Initially, we'll focus on found fun since that is what our audience is currently trained to consume.  With time and enough experiments, we'll begin to notice that with the ability to manipulate body, mind, social context and excitement level, we gain the ability to evoke deeply meaningful emotions. Imagine visceral sorrow, lust, anger, happiness, cruelty, generosity, stress and contentedness.  All the emotions reproducibly evoked in psychology lab experiments become our creative palette. 
Every game becomes a reality television show starring the player. 
Every game designers becomes pragmatic engineers of the player's emotional experience, dissecting and reconstructing the ephemeral moments of human nature.  Our games turn into intricate systems of hardware and software that play players like a willful instrument. 
Hardware like Natal, MotionPlus, Sony's wands and the Vitality Sensor are really just the beginning. There is an entirely new class of middleware that tracks the torrent of new sensor information and teases out useful patterns of human behavior.  Fresh emotional game mechanics that are as new to the world as moving objects in Spacewar! must to be invented from whole cloth. There is great work to be done. 
Once again, I'm reminded what an exciting time it is to be a game developer. 
take care
Danc.