Monday, February 22, 2010

Creating Emotions Through Play-Character (Part II)

In Part I, graduate student Nick Lalone considers Johan Huizinga's notion of play-character as a pathway to invoke emotions in games. In Part II, he compares how various games use play-character.

Most often, video games invoke the spirit of exploration during the time between World War 1 and World War 2. We, as people, think back on a world much larger than it is now. What is out there? As Uncharted 2 begins,
"I never told the half of what I saw ...." - Marco Polo
A world that is filled with mystery taps into the fantastic hindsight we have now through historical documents. Marco Polo headed into a world that none of us could have ever imagined. What would it be like to head into a culture so unlike anything we had never seen? What would it have been like to walk into a place untouched by Roman influence?

Another thing game designers tap into, something that invokes an emotion we can’t describe, is war.
“War, War never changes.” - Fallout 3
War never changes. The atrocities of war are well known to anyone who has ever opened a book about World War 2, the Korean War, the Vietnam War, the Russo-Japanese War, or any war that has ever been fought. Most of the younger generations in the United States or Europe will never know the horror that war brings. The globalization of world industry means that, as Metal Gear teaches us, wars will be fought between nations through a poor nation. Russia and America will fight through Afghanistan, China and America will fight through Korea, etc etc. The citizens of the “Core” countries will most likely fight less and less as the years progress. However, the idea of war is still omnipresent thanks to things like the media, movies, video games, and all sorts of museums. To participate in a war captures an emotional curiosity that reaches almost all of the target audience of video games. We all grew up with parents or grandparents who were a bit “off” due to war. Why, what, and how they became this way is something of a subconscious curiosity. Purchasing a war game allows us to tap into this curiosity, this want-to-know.

However, these things barely tap the play-character. Where the play-character shines in video games is that of environment. For this case, we turn toward Grand Theft Auto.

Grand Theft Auto: Vice City did something so few games, or movies for that matter, have done since the 80s ended: It captured the very essence of vice in the 1980s. Maybe it was the voice acting, maybe it was the music, maybe it was the drug culture, but this game had soul. Playing Vice City meant turning on a time capsule. It invoked emotion simply because of the amount of environmental ooze it managed to move. Since Vice City, each Grand Theft Auto has tried to capture a certain time period. San Andreas captured the atmosphere of the race riots in the 90s. Grand Theft Auto IV managed to capture the essence of resolving the gap between culturally favored goals and current available means to attain those goals (anomie): we usually call this deviance or innovation.

Invoking emotion, invoking the play-character is a risky way to bring emotional investment by your players. However, the mode through which a game designer can capture this is not replicable as that of a single event. Still and all, going too far or not enough and players will punish you by not purchasing your game.

Nick LaLone is a graduate student working on an MA at Texas State University-San Marcos. When the video games are turned off, Nick can be found writing about modernization theory, gender, and social media. His work on these subjects with regard to video (and board) games can be found at


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