Saturday, July 16, 2011

Shadow Emotions and Primary Emotions

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.

    Shadow Emotions

    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:
    • Territory
    • Time 
    • Resources
    • Information
    • 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 8x8 pixelated bullet with no fidelity, realism or crafted narrative means something emotionally that no movie or novel will ever capture.

    take care,

    (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)



    1. Your notion of shadow emotions is probably related to "mirror neurons", which fire when you observe behavior in someone else (

    2. Awesome article, Daniel, and thanks for the plug :)
      One thing that Realm of the Mad God exemplifies - at least for players who are aware of its permadeath rule - is that the clearer and the purer your game is about the primary emotions it generates, the more players who seek these emotions out will appreciate it. It's the main reason for the success of the survival horror genre.

    3. Good post, but my first reaction is that you are undercalling the strength and value of empathy. As a result it's under-addressed.

      You define empathy as "We simulate what we might feel in this particular situation"

      'Simulate' as a choice (deliberate?) of word comes off as colder and more detached than others that I think are more accurate.

      Consider's more evocative (though admittedly more ambiguous) definition:
      "understanding and entering into another's feelings"
      'Entering into'(!) can be read in a number of ways, but I'd say 'simulate' is at the colder end of the spectrum

      I also really liked this one from the American Heritage Cultural Dictionary:
      "Identifying oneself completely with an object or person, sometimes even to the point of responding physically, as when, watching a baseball player swing at a pitch, one feels one's own muscles flex."

      I think the TL;DR version of this part of you argument is that doing is more powerful that watching others do.

      When one watches, say, Old Yeller, one doesn't watch the shooting at the end with the cold detachment of someone thinking "I wonder what it would be like to be that boy?". We are transported in an instinctive, deep way, we feel for the situation as part of the human condition. It's possible to imagine that a game version of this would cause one to better consider the choice of the situation, shoot or not, etc. I'm not sure it would make the tears flow any more freely than the empathetic "simulation" does.

    4. [last comment was from me. Why does Google think I speak Dutch is beyond me.]

    5. Kim,

      The difference is between you crying when Old Yeller dies and us playing a game where you are forced to kill your own dog. I am certainly not arguing that empathy is weak or shallow. I'm saying that it is a different emotional mechanism with distinctly different results.

      The moral implications alone of implementing the 'Old Yeller Game' should indicate just how big the differences are. (Especially if you consider the spectrum from Permadeath to Boxing to Cockfighting to the Stanford Prison Experiment)

      There is a rhetorical bias to this essay that seeks to promote the study of games that create primary emotions. There are an immense number of game developers, journalists and academics that dedicate the majority of their careers to the advancement of media based on shadow emotions. The cinema, music and literature industries are a massive force that sucks the air out of any conversation about the unique properties of games. A few coldly analytic descriptions are more than offset by the landfills worth of poetic nonsense that our industrialized media (and associated parasitic critics) currently produce.

      I find it fascinating that games have had the properties of causing primary emotions for thousands of years. Yet there are but a tiny handful of people that talk about the phenomena, the process and tools. Compared to other creative endeavors, we haven't even started the conversation.

      take care

    6. Where this gets really interesting is when the primary emotion & secondary emotions the game elicits are the same - consider the role-playing game Dread, where you play a character in a dreadful situation and a game of Jenga at the same time.
      Some of the Scandinavian role-players call this 'bleed'.

    7. Oh, and permadeath is a pretty good example of that - the secondary emotion of seeing a protagonist die combined with the primary emotion of the sense of loss in your investment.

    8. I believe all gaming is emotional engineering, and the universal emotion is Investment/Loss; most games just don't go beyond the player's continued existence in the game, and perhaps the territory or resources they have accrued in the game. In Monopoly, you have your properties, houses, hotels, money -- but the most significant attribute is the continued ability to exist as a player at the table.

    9. I'm woefully ignorant on the topic, but what you're calling "shadow emotions" seems similar to Aristotle's catharsis--the safe release of emotions through experiencing some media.

      I don't know whether contemporary thought gives much credence the concept, or whether it's applicable beyond the concept of tragedy-makes-audiences-sad (I suspect it may), but it's a thought.

    10. [It would seem that using Google's OpenID service causes my name to become 'id'--the last directory of the url. That's probably not correct.]

      Anyway, I was the previous comment.

      -- Clayton Hughes

    11. Super Post Dan! Just adding some random comments ;)

      A sense of "loss" seems like the easiest experience to craft in an interactive media as opposed to a passive one.

      You can lose your house and wife on the roulette table in one spin. This is a real consequence and the emotional stakes are very high.

      Games are generally designed around a concept of fun and not one of loss however. Although loss can trigger powerful emotions, they are rarely synonymous with the goals of a game.

      Permanent change is a fundamental part of what it is to be human. It is "the arrow of time". But games give us the ability to reverse and traverse these rules of nature. Games about decay and irreversible change with low entropy will most likely get tossed aside into the art game basket unless very cleverly crafted.

      In my experience, there are not different emotional categories for responses to natural and synthetic impulses. The only difference lies in the fact that you can close down your game, or the lights come on in the cinema, the suspension of disbelief evaporates and you can rationalise the emotion experience and have a far quicker cool-down.

      If you hear a strange noise in your house and you experience fear. The fear is real. If the noise is a squirl or possum in your roof, or the sound is a speaker in your roof, or there is a man in his underpants with a bloody axe in your backyard, the emotion comes from inside yourself, your experience, your imagination. It's how quickly you overcome this fear that makes it a "safe emotion".

      Empathy I feel is a different subset of emotions that we experience differently and I think that's more what you are getting at. They are far more passive experiences and far less about a personal experience.

      Anyway, just throwing in my two fish!


    12. (Ian tried to post this, but couldn't for some reason so I'm posting it for him -Danc)

      Definitely on to something here, but like Kim I think the essay is weaker for the attempt to undermine the profound emotions that can come from a good book or movie. Thinking to my own experience as a game player, the top three most emotionally memorable moments for me (including one that created a flashbulb memory) all happened during noninteractive cut scenes. Yes, in all of these I had a time (and emotional) investment in the game, and the sense of loss triggered by a catastrophe outside my control was as real to me as the Challenger explosion or Columbine or 9/11. But this was still from the narrative portion of the game, not the mechanics itself. Mechanics have never touched me on that deep a level.

      I suspect this is true of other media as well; I'd expect that more than a few Harry Potter fans felt a real (not "shadow" or simulated) sense of loss when some spoiler-laden things happened to their favorite characters in the last few years. In these cases I think it was a matter of tying a fictional loss to a real-world time investment - the larger the investment, the harder the impact, and the HP series was long enough for these things to matter. In this respect, games (particularly those with some form of permadeath) are ideal for invoking emotions like grief, because by definition the player is invested in their character. The longer they play a single character and the more time they spend building up that character, the greater the perceived loss.

      Here, the difference between games and movies is mostly one of time; you watch a movie for two hours, you play a game for twenty, ergo you feel greater loss in the game. Presumably a death in a long-running well done TV series could have an even greater emotional impact, as fans might have invested hundreds of hours spaced out over many years. Knowing that it's "not real" is immaterial; it's just as real to the viewer, secure in the knowledge that in this series they will never see a particular character again, as sure as they'd never see their own dead loved ones again.

      There is something to be said for the player losing something personal, like a PC where they had invested not only time but creativity, choosing their avatar's hair color and stats and whatnot. But then, there's also something to be said for the loss of a character that the player/viewer didn't create but still enjoys seeing, because that NPC is crafted by an expert storyteller. A good storyteller should be able to create a more likable or memorable character than the average game player.

      - Ian

    13. experiences differ from yours. I find most of the narrative elements in games rather dull compared to those in books or movies. On the other hand I do have intensely strong memories of emotional gaming moments. I remember cheating at Monopoly and getting caught. I remember getting on base for the first time in a baseball game. I remember being picked last in a kickball game. I've felt the tang of failure in screwing up repeatedly a particular jumping section in Knytt. These are actions I personally and directly experienced that had clear emotional results. These emotional moments that occur very naturally as the result of games. In fact, every single successful play test (and many unsuccessful ones) I do results in strongly expressed emotions. These are not just a matter of 'time' spent with the experience. These are the outcome of putting a human being into a precisely defined interactive system and seeing what happens. It is direct human experience vs a reflection on human experience.

      You *can* stretch it and find subtle examples of how the 'system of reading' yields the same class of primary emotions that games naturally create, but such moments are often outliers. Yes, when fans love a book, invests in it and it ends, the reader feels a sense of loss. But is this the primary goal of the author or is it a secondary effect? Just because there is a 5% overlap are we obligated to say that the mechanics of emotion generation are the same? Absolutely not. It smacks of being a traditional media apologist instead of exploring the unique emotional potential of games.

      I also wouldn't get fixated on the narrow case of loss. Once you start knowing what to look for, you can see all sorts of examples of games that cause real emotions. My favorite are the MMOs in China that specifically are designed as alternatives to the traditional dating culture. Within the rules of the game, men and women date and fall in love. This is real love, not a story of love. In the game of boxing, you feel shock when someone punches you in the face. In Poker, you feel sneaky when you bluff. Primary emotions are everywhere.

      Also don't worry that by saying such things, 'story games' will somehow stop being made. At this point, we have multiple generations of "Gamer" shock-troops trained to think that 'video games' are some revolutionary story telling medium that is an ordained ubermensch evolution over with the primitive little games and sports that have occupied humanity in that sad pre-computer era. The dream of a better Final Fantasy is already way too safe.

      Talking about games as games when discussing emotion is an uphill battle. In your comment, Ian, you are using terminology that really isn't worth a damn in the context of many fascinating and worthy games. Such subconscious framing makes even talking about the topic of primary emotion in games difficult. Character, NPC and Storyteller really do mean nothing in a game of kickball. As an exercise in become a better game designer toss such concepts out and see if you can make something emotionally interesting. I bet you can.

      take care,

    14. (And here's Ian's reply. Posted with permission)

      Wow, it's amazing how different our experiences are. I really do not have strong memories of specific moments like the ones you mention, at all. Maybe I played so many games when I was young that they all blended together. Maybe even back then I was more interested in designing than playing - I definitely have emotional moments of the maze game I made out of Legos in elementary school, or the Final Fantasy-inspired card game I designed and played with my friends in high school, or the Magic set I designed with friends in college. Huge emotional impact there. But as for emotions that come from gameplay itself... I don't know what accounts for the difference in our experience.

      The closest example I can think of from personal experience was the sensation of playing in a Chess tournament... final game, me in #2 slot vs. #1 for the state championship trophy. But even then, I couldn't tell you anything about the game that I was playing - I was too nervous at the time to remember such details! The emotion here was a function of the high-stakes circumstances; the game itself, the opening I used, the ebb and flow of the game, I don't remember any of it. Perhaps you could argue that the mechanics of tournament play, to the extent that Swiss brackets are themselves a "game," are the cause of this kind of emotion... but not the mechanics of the game of Chess itself.

      Some of your other examples are the same way. The emotional impact of getting punched in the face in a boxing match, I suspect, comes less from mechanics than from the physical act of being punched in the face. If someone outside of a boxing ring walked up to you on the street and punched you in the face, you'd have a strong emotion for that too, but I wouldn't call it game mechanics. People fall in love (real-world love) in WoW, but that's more a function of having people in the same online space; people fall in love in chat rooms without a game attached, too. To the extent that MMO mechanics play a role, in many cases it's more facilitation of an existing player desire than creating raw emotion out of thin air.

      To be clear, I don't doubt that you're correct that games can generate primary emotion. I just think your examples need a bit of work; I didn't find them very accessible when applied to my own experience, is all.

      I had to chuckle at thinking of myself as a traditional media apologist, given that I'm normally the one who ignores theme and jumps right into the mechanics. Even as a designer, I'm the guy you want detailing systems, not writing narrative :). Maybe that's why narrative has an emotional impact for me, because it hasn't been demystified for me to the extent that mechanics have?

      - Ian

    15. It was definitely a ballsy move going with "real" death (or as it was called in the old days, hardcore mode). Real death in video games is a double edged sword that many choose not to wield because the stakes are so high for the player: as you said, many hours of work and careful planning can disappear instantly.

      That said, you make a compelling argument for real death by emphasizing this idea of primary emotion. The trade off is there, but by bringing primary emotion into play, you can fundamentally change the way that players view their character and the game itself. While some of the people that have their characters die will probably quit, I'm betting that many more of them will start a new character with a renewed sense of determination to keep this one alive. All in all, great post.

    16. Hi Dan,

      When I get back from DiGRA I shall have to challenge this piece. :) This directly relates to the discussion of emotions of play and quasi-emotions in 'Imaginary Games', but my conclusions would be very different from yours.

      I covered quasi-emotions originally in 'Game Design as Make-Believe, Part V':
      And expanded on some of these points in Sympathy for the Colossus:

      Psychology and neuroscience can't solve this one on their own - it requires philosophy, because it necessarily involves ontology (the study of being) i.e. distinguishing real from its alternatives.

      I'll have to write a specific piece to respond to your argument in full, but in brief your primary emotions are all the limbic system fight-and-flight and reward responses (i.e. survival emotions), and your shadow emotions are Walton's quasi-emotions. But you radically underestimate the impact of quasi-emotions and, I believe, claim some things as "real" that I would be disinclined to consider unambiguously real - including the victory in Chess and the loss of the save file/permadeath character. Is the emotion in the case of the latter genuine? Yes, it is frustration (i.e. anger). But is the loss real? This I will probably dispute in the case of permadeath.

      You seem to be advancing what I might call a Dionysian defense of games - and this route could be straight to an artistic ghetto if we're not careful - it can lead to "poker is more important than paintings because the emotions are more intense", which might not be a sensible turn to make. ;)

      Look forward to responding to this in more detail when I have the time.

      All the best,


    17. @Chris

      I wouldn't say poker is more important than paintings. That's probably going too far. Instead I'm saying "There are two mechanism here. Historically, games have borrowed heavily from narrative and have preferenced the empathic / shadow emotions" Hey, let's talk about those primary emotions for once. Let's figure out how they work with games.

      Also, I would suggest that you don't focus entirely on 'frustration' which seems to be an odd catch all term I've seen you use. In Chinese MMOs players fall in love in a manner that is heavily facilitated by the game. In Twister, we flirt and bond in a highly emotional manner that again is highly facilitated by the game. The range of primary emotions is vast...they are the emotions you feel in the course of living your life.

      Also primary emotions are not purely limbic flight and fight emotions though they obvious have roots here. If you go back to the two factor theory of emotion, the context of the limbic emotion results in cognitive label being applied. This label shifts how the user interprets the physical sensations. The results can be as different as the sensation of being afraid since you are on a swinging bridge above a high canyon or the sensation of feeling lust because there's a pretty girl with you on that same bridge. (My favorite example of this recently is that measurements of declared homophobes shows distinct penile arousal when watching homosexual porn. Given their context and environment, they interpret this as 'hate'. In another situation, they might be interpreting their physical response quite differently)

      So it isn't simple frustration by any stretch of the imagination. It is a messy business, emotions.

      Can we at least talk about the emotions of poker without falling back into the standard well worn conversation about paintings? Because I don't see that happening on a wide scale currently.

    18. There is a pretty widespread word for your 'shadow emotions' it's called empathy:

      The first step towards compassion :)