Emotions and art in games

In discussions about emotions in games -and the desire to have more of them- we are quick to use the word art. But outside of games, art and emotion are not so clearly linked. In fact, a lot of -“high” or “fine”- art tends to provoke much weaker emotions in the audience than soap opera’s, Hollywood tear jerkers or romantic literature. The emotions provoked by the latter evaporate rather quickly, while the former can linger on for days, years. They can even change your life, as Rilke pointed out.

Since games are interactive, we are used to receiving immediate response to our input. When it comes to emotions, we probably expect the same immediacy. We want the game to grab us by the throat and force us to feel something. Will this exclude games from ever rising above the status of popular -“low” or “commercial”- art?

I guess the question is:
Does interactivity stand in the way of depth, of thoughtfulness?

35 thoughts on “Emotions and art in games”

  1. Thanks for all the great posts! You guys are truly inspirational.

    On your post – I think that it is exactly within interactivity that we can find a new depth that we haven’t experienced elsewhere; the interactivity in itself possibly drawing us even closer and into action, into participation as opposed to being passive viewers. I think that this specific point of participation is a vantage point that could give us an experience filled with emotion to an extent that we don’t experience in other types of media. Feeling personally responsible for our actions within games and being faced with consequences of those actions, whatever they are.

    I think that games as a form of art that will continue to be called art, or even gain more respect with years to come, is something on the verge of happening. There is a small awakening in the form of demands towards emotionally rich content and form in games.

    I feel like we have turned into living recipient devices of media. Being a person in this modern society not only makes you a victim to endless horror stories of society; it also makes you numb to them. I think that we are becoming aware of this fact and have started to seek a type of intimacy in the form of emotions in new places, namely games.

    I think that the reason we play is shifting and that we will soon start to play to feel, to experience somewhat of a new media catharsis, allowing us to experience without having to actually go through with it.

    Art is an extremely delicate matter (especially the whole ‘what is art’ part of it) and although I don’t think that games will ever be thought of as art in the same way as paintings or sculptures, I think they will gain their own level of significance in the world. All in good time.

    Keep up the good work :)

  2. Thank you.

    I’m not too concerned about what games will be called. I’m interested in their potential as a creative form. I personally tend to believe that there is potential in this technology to create an artistic medium that can achieve deeper and more significant artistic expressions than any other medium has been capable of before (because it uses a completely new form of communication that allows us to talk about things in ways that were not possible before). But I wonder if this potential will ever be developed. And on a rainy day, I also doubt if it is really there, of course.

  3. “Does interactivity stand in the way of depth, of thoughtfulness?”

    On the contrary, it’s only mistaking the map for the territory that stands in the way of thoughtfulness. The real potential is in interactivity that feeds back on the user, changes her mind, warps her reality tunnel or maybe sets her free to create a new one.

    You should check out the write-up I did of The Art Of Play. That confernece showed me a few interesting things about your work, between the discussions about goals (the usual “what is a game?” semantics) and seeing people react to Endless Forest, I realized that you call can do quite well. Your work is very important, because it takes a purely aesthetical approach. By giving people soil to create their own aesthetic goals, without the distraction of deep interactivity, you’re doing an experiment, and the results seem to indicate that lots of people prefer to play in that manner.

    I think if we assume that there’s some fundamental gap here betweeen what you’re doing and what other game-artists are doing, then we’ll lose a very valuable opportunity to take the lessons learned from your work and use it to augment the meaning of more manifold interactivity.

  4. Could you post a link to that write-up, Patrick?

    We have always felt a kind of strange contrast between games and playing. We often feel that computer games prevent us from playing. By imposing strict rules and a myopic focus on goals, they often present nothing but challenges to overcome and no room for playing. That’s when games become work -traditionally the opposite of play.

    And while I do feel that experiencing art can benefit from a playful attitude, playfulness in and of itself does not suffice to generate meaning.

    Or does it?…

  5. “We want the game to grab us by the throat and force to feel something.”
    Uhm, who are you talking about?

  6. I don’t know. I think for most people who play games now, it might be. There’s not much to go on though, since there’s hardly any games that attempt to be anything but a lowbrow entertainment.

    What I am wondering is whether games are inherently lowbrow, destined to be pulp because of certain aspects of the technology. Does the immediacy of interaction destine games to be always superficial? Does this immediacy preclude reflection?

  7. If you insist, I think that for players who don’t care about throat-grappling games, contradiction between interaction and depth doesn’t exist.

  8. Of course. But I’m wondering if those players exist. And if so, will they ever outnumber the others?

    The games you mention are typical examples of “sterile” games. Games that explicitly steer clear from emotions or narrative. Basically dinosaurs with respect to what I’m talking about. Or noble ancestors if you wish. But completely irrelevant to this discussion.

  9. I’m not sure I understand how can a game “steer clear” from emotions, especially a “war” game.

  10. Besides, why exactly do you consider non-emotional gamers such an oddity? I don’t know a single person whose motivation for playing games is in the lines of “I want to play something that makes me angsty and a bit nostalgic” (even if this actually happens).

  11. Depth and thoughtfulness come from reflection, which is inherently internal and passive, while interactivity is by necessity active and external. Still, I don’t feel the two are mutually exclusive, and I think “players” of TEF would be likely to agree.

    The removal of direct communication vis a vis verbal languages encourages internalization by forcing “players” to draw meaning from something essentially meaningless. If designers have no design/intention as to how game elements are interpreted, no innate meaning is distilled into those elements, and any meaning interpreted/understood by the player is completely personal.

    Those are my two cents, anyway.

  12. Thoughtless interactivity does. On the part of the player, I mean.
    So we should try and make the player think. Thoughtful interactivity.

  13. I think you are right, Dick, about The Endless Forest. But are you referring to interaction with the game’s fiction or with the other players? I think social interaction can be very meaningful, in any kind of context. But this is not a meaning that comes from artistic expression.

    Eden, are you advocating a new attitude in players when playing games? If not, “making the player think” does not seem too far removed from “grabbing him by the troat”? Or maybe there’s a middle ground. A true collaboration between the game and the player?

    After all, even current designs expect the player to behave in a certain way in order to have fun. As gamers, we may take this for granted, but I have seen too many non-gamers fumble with controls and scratch their heads over structure conventions to believe that these actions are intuitive and transparent.

    So, I guess the next question is: what kind of interactivity would stimulate players to reflect?
    (and a sub-question of this is: will this work on current gamers, or are we seeking a new audience?)

  14. You may have a point, the games that have made me the most thoughtful and contemplative of them are usually games that allow long periods of non-interactivity (such as console RPGs like Xenogears, where sometimes you spend half an hour just watching the story unfold, without interaction). But I think it’s a mistake to extend that. Just because periods of non-interactivity within interactivity are useful doesn’t mean that completely removing interactivity would be as useful.

  15. Michael, I think a new attitude is important.

    I noticed when I had “gamers” test my game, they didn’t notice the instability of the controls, think about meaning behind images; etc. They just had the attitude of seeking fun through finding a goal and doing it. (Whereas when you played it you did notice the controls, etc). I don’t know whether gamers will ever get out of this mindset- they’re searching for different things in games to us. That is fine. It’s the difference between “entertainment” films and “artsy” films. They can co-exist.

    But a different attitude is needed even to current games. “New Game Journalists”, sites like actionbutton.net, are all looking at games with a fairly different attitude. And thus they get different things out of them.

    Games need to change too of course; but we can’t expect interaction to evoke “depth” and “thoughtfulness” if players’ minds are in “game playing mode”; because the mind of the player is not looking for that.

    I’m not personally seeking the audience of gamers.

  16. Michael, it applies to the game and the players, but obviously moreso with the created environment – not that the actions themsleves are meaningless, but that the meaning is inferred by the viewer/audience rather than implied by the artist. Like Warhol’s poP! art, if the artist has no intention or message when creating, then any meaning “discovered” or felt by a viewer/participant comes from within that viewer. Hence internalization is “forced” through abstraction by default.

    And Eden is very much correct about lengthy game periods where there is inactivity, or so little activity that the player must seek his own path and content. This again requires the player to look within and discover his/her own goals and obstacles. The industry calls this “open ended gameplay”, but really it just means that the order of a game’s narrative structure is based entirely on choices made by the player. As a lifetime “gamer” (from tabletop to laptop), I greatly prefer this type of freedom to being railroaded from one plot point to the next, and I think most RPGers at least would agree.

    You make another fine point about intuitive control. Granted, gamers will typically have the upper hand to newbs when it comes to discovering controls. Still, very simple and intuitive rules and controls will always make a game more appealing, especially to those unfamiliar with those rules. I have abandonned otherwise Gorgeous RPGs due to their convoluted combat systems, but I still actively play Rez, a decades old FPS, because of the simple and addictive gameplay.

  17. I don’t think that you have to put things so extreme, Dick. Art is always about the viewer. The Rilke poem I linked to in the post ends by saying that the artwork is looking at you, not vice versa. This doesn’t mean that the artist’s input is irrelevant. It’s just a different approach to authorship. One that allows for ambiguity and makes the interpretation of the viewer an active part of the work. I believe that the extent to which an author can do this in interactive media is one of its main strengths.

  18. “Does interactivity stand in the way of depth, of thoughtfulness?”

    This is a question with no right or wrong answer since everyone has different feelings towards art and think in so many different ways.

    Personally…I think no. If anything, I’ve always felt that a gaming being interactive just increased the amount of depth because my action effects something.

    Games like Indigo Prophecy, Mass Effect, Fable…Hell even the Elder Scrolls series…where your response to a character or the action you make effects something have put me in situations where I actually had to set my controller down and think before I acted. Like in the scene in Indigo Prophecy where you’ve playing as Karla and Tyler comes in asking rather he should leave with Sam or stay in New York to help Karla. I spent a couple minutes- literally putting myself in the character’s shoes – trying to decide what to do.

    Then there’s games that just seem to be full of emotion. The most recent one for me was Bioshock. The game’s environment made me feel like I really was trapped and felt a bit claustrophobic. Then with the Little Sisters, it seemed to make you question your morality. Do you express Darwin’s Theory of Survival of the Fittest? (You’re the more evolved life form and you need what the Little Sisters have to benefit yourself, so do you take it?) Or do you feel symptomatic to them and save them? Then there were times when I killed a Big Daddy that I felt horrible because the Little Sister would be sitting by the dead body crying, “No…Mr. Bubbles!” If you sat and watched the Little Sisters and the Big Daddies interact throughout the game, you could tell that they were fairly close and I had just killed that Little Sister’s only friend.

    Then hearing everything that Andrew Ryan had down filled me with anger and the scene where Atlas’ family was killed just enraged me more to the point where I really wanted to take revenge against Ryan. Then when the major plot twist happened (I won’t say what it is in case someone hasn’t played it, but those who have beaten it…I’m sure you know what I’m talking about) made me feel betrayed and I actually felt stupid for believing him.

    Now of course, some of these emotions didn’t happen right away; it took time for them to develop throughout the game. The more I played Indigo Prophecy, the more sorry I felt for Lucas; the more I played Bioshock, the more I angry I felt towards Ryan. I think the reason why these emotions and feelings developed was because the game was interactive. I played a role in it even though the character and the story is already set. I have found myself having a harder time relating or feeling for characters in movies or TV shows- sometimes even in books – because I have no control over what happens; I just sit there and watch it.

    As to rather or not this will prevent games from climbing higher on the art ladder, it’s hard to say because art can be viewed in so many different ways. (I’m sure that if I found a random picture and showed it to 20 different people, each person would have a different interruption as to what it means and have a different feeling to it.) Some people are going to want instant responses to what they do; others don’t mind it developing over time.

  19. Kumiko, the games that you mention are, in my opinion, examples of games that “grab you by the throat” rather than allow for, stimulate or even require reflection. If the stories in those games were used in movies, the movies would be considered light-hearted pop-corn entertainment. Are you saying that interactivity increases the depth of the experience of an otherwise banal story, increases the breadth of its meaning?

  20. What does reflection merit? It’s but a particular form. Games are a medium, and its principles are trying to be understood. They will be similar to other forms, yet plenty will be unique. It seems obvious that there is a place for games every bit as much as cinema, music, theatre, etc.

    How games work, in particular, is still a bit fuzzy, but the idea I latch onto the best is that of the creation of a system, with the player goal being ‘complete understanding of the system’. In this act of learning a system, so much can be communicated. It’s not just a fact, emotion, or suggestion that can be evoked, but a whole ‘system’ of thinking – about any question the artist cares to posit. This systemic level of suggestion or communication is perhaps more powerful than cinema’s ‘storyline’ or visual art’s ‘depiction’, though each can be powerful.

    Being able to craft systemic thinking and action on the audience’s part is powerful on the level of cultish recruitment or the most advanced participatory theatre. There’s huge potential to not just communicate, but reshape perspective, and I think artists need to be two steps ahead of commerce or government in this regard.

    Also, the audience is, already, all modern people, not just gamers. The idea of ‘experience design’ and ‘media pervasiveness’ is everyday. Allof us are immersed in a web of primitively organized media systems. These can and will get quite a bit more organized in a flash, and the result will be not unlike what we call ‘games.’ Many will just call it ‘culture’ or ‘network.’ A screen (game) is a screen (net), and a character (you) is a character (you).

  21. You make it sound like games are the ultimate propaganda or brainwashing tool, Corbin. 😉

    How do you see the part of the player in all this? Should art not be about this player, rather than about the author?

  22. Michaël, I believe I misunderstood you then. When you said “grab you by the throat” I thought you were referring to a strong emotion that develops suddenly due to a sudden event over emotions that developed over time.

    Anyway, “Are you saying that interactivity increases the depth of the experience of an otherwise banal story, increases the breadth of its meaning?”

    Yes, I suppose you could say that.

  23. Games are different so who says they shouldn’t be more primal in their emotional approach. You guys seem to be talking about reflection as if it is necessary for art. Believe it or not but not every visceral movie is low-brow, blockbuster quality.

  24. Indeed. Fascinating game!
    We’ve been communicating with Ice Pick Lodge, the developers, and thinking about featuring them on this blog. Because they deserve more attention (in the West). Glad to see Rock Paper Shotgun is giving them some!

  25. “Does interactivity stand in the way of depth, of thoughtfulness?”

    I have to agree with Dick that thoughtfullness and depth are all about reflection. Reflection is questioning.

    If I was looking at a painting and asking myself questions about it, such as “why does this painting exist?” Or, “what does it try to tell me?” Then I’m ‘thoughtfully’ searching for depth, for reason, answers.

    Now, interactivity could let me answer those questions, or at least pursue them. And if it did, would this mean less depth or more depth? Would this mean more art or less art?

    Possesing a satisfying answer stops the questioning.

    So, if interactivity leads to answers, then interactivity stands in the way. But what if interactivity satisfied one question but generated two more? Or if it doesn’t satisfied any questions, only raises more and more? Surely the interactivity adds depth and thoughtfulness in that in case, maybe to a point that only ‘art experts’ can enjoy it…?

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