Sunday, April 17, 2016

Building Emotional Connections with Game Design

In this article, game designer Sande Chen follows up on the ways games can provide a truly emotional experience.

At NYU's Lecture Series on April 7, 2016, Katherine Isbister, Professor of Computational Media at UC Santa Cruz, explained how game designers are already building emotional connections in their games.  This issue of emotive game design has been of concern to narrative designers, especially in regards to the Heroine's Journey, but Isbister is more concerned with how game design affects emotions rather than how story affects emotions.  She feels it's an oversimplification to simply state that it's stories that provide the only emotional impact in games. 

Pulling examples from her recent book, How Games Move Us: Emotion By Design, Professor Isbister cited 3 ways in which game design impacts players emotionally.

1.  Emotional Connections with Non-Player Characters

The "moment to moment intimacy," as Isbister says, that is created through NPC design is extremely powerful.  This is not necessarily about storylines, as I pointed out in "For the Love of a Dog," my blog post about the connection between players and NPC dogs, but about player interactions with NPCs.  While certainly plot and dialogue can play a great role, as in Isbister's example regarding Japanese dating simulations, it is not necessary.  Players remember the pain and loss of destroying a Companion Cube in Portal.  This notion of losing a beloved NPC, as in Aeris' death in Final Fantasy VII, is practically a trope.  Beyond attachment, players can feel responsibility for a NPC's welfare, as with Yorda in the game Ico.

2.  Emotional Connections with Avatars (Self)

How many players have been faced with the agonizing situation of losing one's own avatar?  After months or years of customizing and leveling up, the emotional connection to this projected self-identity can be overpowering.  If you've been following my work, then you know I've discussed how real-life changes in patients have stemmed from engaging in healthy activities in virtual worlds. It's this kind of research that inspired the creation of Lumeria, an ARG to promote physical and mental well-being.  This self-identification with avatars is so great that immersion in a nurturing virtual environment has helped those players with phobias, eating disorders, weight loss issues, and social anxiety.

3. Emotional Connections with Other Players

How about the emotional connections with other players?  Sure, there's clans and guilds where there's ample communication, but how about situations where there's cooperation needed but little communication?  According to Isbister, games provide the opportunity to create "socially meaningful situations."  Unlike the silent and superficial social interaction of visiting each other's farms in FarmVille, the game Journey produces a strong emotional bond between strangers who happen upon each other while progressing through the game. Obviously, as I stated in "Leading by Emotion," this type of situation was likely socially engineered by the designer as part of the early design.

Sande Chen is a writer and game designer whose work has spanned 10 years in the industry. Her credits include 1999 IGF winner Terminus, 2007 PC RPG of the Year The Witcher, and Wizard 101. She is one of the founding members of the IGDA Game Design SIG.


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