Real emotions from our games?

Over the weekend I read an interesting post by Dan Cook over at Lost Garden: Shadow Emotions and Primary Emotions. In it, Cook coins the phrase “shadow emotions” to indicate emotions that we experience second-hand, while “primary emotions” are emotions that impact us directly. Using Cook’s examples, feeling sad after reading a news story about a mother dying is a shadow emotion, while feeling sad because your own mother died is a primary emotion.

Cook says AAA game developers work hard to deliver shadow emotion experiences in much the same way that books and movies do. But, he suggests, game developers can do more and that games are one of the few art forms that can let us feel primary emotions. When your character dies in a permadeath game the feeling of sadness you feel is a primary emotion, for instance. (Still using his examples.) When a spawn camper takes you out several times in a row, the rage you feel is a primary emotion.

I think Cook makes some really interesting points, but I don’t want to follow him down this path. The basic premise of the essay seems to me that primary emotions are a goal game devs should reach for. My problem with this theory is that most of his examples are of negative emotions. Sadness and anger. His positive example (elation) revolves around hitting a goal in a game.

The problem, for me at least, is that as much as I gain satisfaction from reaching a goal in a game, that emotion is fairly fleeting. But if another player pisses me off to the point where I feel rage, I can carry that baggage into my real life far too easily. I’ll be in a bad mood for the rest of the day, sometimes. Maybe this is why I generally play solo?

I think, when I come home from a long, tiring day at work, that ‘shadow emotions’ are plenty for me. I’m not sure I want my games invoking powerful primary emotions, either good or bad. I play to relax. I might be swayed if someone could convince me that we’d get as much positive as negative emotions out of our games, but I’d have to experience that kind of game to know for sure.

I’m also not sure how to categorize the feeling of contentment I get when I finish a game. Is that primary or shadow? I’m not sure it’s different form the feeling of contentment I get from finishing a book.

Anyway, agree or not, it’s a fascinating essay and I encourage you to give it a read.

5 thoughts on “Real emotions from our games?

  1. We’re really tuned to shadow emotions, though, from movies and books and songs and the like. I’d think it’s easier for us to engage in those as opposed to the primaries because for primaries to take hold they have to affect us or something connected directly with us. If a game slapped my child or gave my child a flower, those would evoke primary emotions.

    I’m not sure we CAN get primaries from external, non-personal sources.

  2. But if another player pisses me off to the point where I feel rage, I can carry that baggage into my real life far too easily. I�ll be in a bad mood for the rest of the day, sometimes. Maybe this is why I generally play solo?

    As you recently informed me that I have been one of the aforementioned players (Twitterers, actually) who made you rage all day in real life (sorry, had no idea I had been that troublesome…) I thought I’d throw my two cents in while diverting into one of my tangents, naturally. 🙂

    As Chris mentioned above, we are certainly acclimated to shadow emotions from passive entertainment such as movies, music, or literature. Gaming might be somewhat more active than passive on the scale, but we still tend to pile up small, personalized goals that give us these fleeting shadow emotions. Perhaps we want a complete set of rare gear just for cosmetic purposes that won’t serve any real purpose. Perhaps we really want a certain achievement or trophy on that Xbox or PS3 game. Perhaps in life we’ve built an emotional shield and only engage in shallow, fleeting conversation (“small talk”) with acquaintances, co-workers, and so forth, whom we won’t lower those shields for to allow them in further. We might get hurt if we do.

    But it’s when we do risk getting hurt that we also get the greatest rewards, no? (Am I great at dishing out advice that I unfortunately don’t take myself, or what?) Some of our best and favorite experiences come from doing something we had some fear of but, if only for a moment, were able to conquer that fear and just go for it. That’s certainly true in my life. And it was always with someone else to share that experience with. Perhaps not as much reward to bother risking anything if I’m the only one who will know about it? And in games, other players can, and will, be a source of frustration and rage. But they can also create positive shared experiences that extend beyond the fleeting pixels and sound effects and form lasting memories.

    In both life and (multiplayer) games, other people can be an unknown quantity. They can bring positive or negative experiences, or degrees of each. The good outweighs the bad, but only if we allow it to…

  3. There’s already a word for “shadow emotions”: sympathy.

    Good point about negative emotions being easier to produce than positive ones.

    What sort of emotions a game should evoke depends greatly on the particular game. You mentioned earlier, Pete, that you enjoyed Demon’s Souls. From what I understand, that is not a game that lets players relax. You appreciate harsh games… just not all the time.

    The truth is that, regardless of each individual player’s life and personality, we all appreciate both relaxing and taxing entertainment. With films, we each appreciate comedies, dramas, documentaries, thrillers and so on. Some we want to be serious and some we want to be unserious. Personally, I love the film Schindler’s List, but I also love Seinfeld because it’s the one comedy that didn’t try to also be dramatic.

    Games must always be compelling, but not always uplifting.

  4. There have been times, mainly with Starcraft II, that after the match is finished I feel emotionally wiped out. It goes for both wins and losses. My heart rate is up, my throat is dry and the adrenaline is flowing. I tell myself to clam down, it’s just a game. There is something about the frantic pace of the game, and the fact that you are 1 on 1 vs another human opponent that just revs me up. It’s not a sadness or excitement that a role playing experience would give me, sure… but regardless, It leaves me with “real” emotions. The thing is though, it’s hard to handle. I seriously have to cool down afterwards. Especially after losses that I thought I could have won.

    With that said, I’m not sure that I would want that type of emotion out of more games. SC2 seems to be the only game that puts me in this place. I tend to find most mmo’s relaxing because there is rairly a time where I’m up against the clock, and I’m usually playing with friends so the pressure to be perfect is lessened. But, this is a good thing. If all games brought about real emotions rather than just shadow emotions, I’m not sure it would be a very relaxing hobby. Often times I play games at the end of a day to escape for a bit. To wind down and blow off some steam. While I like Starcraft, it certainly doesn’t wind me down. Just the opposite.

    This is just my opinion though. Gamers tend to game for different reasons. I would almost wonder if gamers looking for real emotions play first person shooters and battle arena type games more than mmo’s or rpgs. It sounds counter-intuitive, but I think they might draw more real emotions from the actual gameplay mechanic rather than the story line. It’s a proving ground, and the thrill comes from taking the action into their own hands.

  5. Oh I don’t know man. When that idiot in my guild stands in the fire for the umpteenth time, I think the emotion I am feeling is pretty effing primal!

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