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Emotion Engineering in Videogames

Started by droqen, April 15, 2023, 08:00:30 AM

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Regarding Stephane Bura's
"Emotion Engineering in Videogames"

I must admit that years ago I laughed at the absurdity and coldness of this piece. Now I think I'm going to really see what it has to offer -- it was a particular social environment, a particular mindset, a particular place in my life and in time, in which I laughed at it. I think I'm past that and may today actually learn something, and have some useful criticism to offer.

I hope to have a useful conversation.


Oftentimes I find myself focusing on the things I disagree with, only, having read Bura's piece in its entirety at some point in the past, my disagreements feel stale and not worth retreading. Interesting.

Here is a great series of statements which I really want to think about:

QuotePlayers don't play to complete games, just as readers don't read to finish book. Players play to feel emotions. Game design is experience crafting for the purpose of emotion engineering. . . . The game designer produces rules for interaction that, with the participation of the player, generate game states that themselves induce emotions in the player.

This is a timeless idea, practically a proposed definition of exactly what games do and how they do it. Reading it made me realize that lately I have not been thinking too much or too highly of the 'generate game states' part of this equation.

In any art form (Bura mentions books), I agree that the focus is to feel something. (Whether we say specifically emotions or not is, I think, a semantic difference that I won't dwell on. Bura uses emotion -- I will wait and see exactly what I feel right about using in the context of examining his article.)

These generated game states are, as he puts it, "intrinsically hard [to design] because . . . [it] is twice removed from its goal."

This is, of course, the same as any art form that has ever existed, and will ever exist:

We do feel things about the first order form and content which the artist presents to us. I may feel some way about the sound of a rhyme, the usage of a single word, the contrast between two shots... or the implementation of a particular game mechanic.

We also feel things about some second order interpreted states which we, participants, arrive at ourselves. I may feel some way about an unstated implication (or rather, my inference), my personal headcanon, a theory about whodunit... or some game state at which I uniquely arrived.

The 'gamestates' available in a lot of videogames can be made extremely narrow, and I wonder: Does this insistence that videogame design is "intrinsically hard" reflect some of the fear which causes game design artists to produce these narrow, uninterpretable designs?

I am curious where Bura goes along these lines (narrowly controlling game states, lest they get out of hand); I don't quite remember.


Quote[1] Since the players and their playing experiences are so different from one another, one cannot guaranty[sic] that a given player will feel a given emotion at a given point in the game.
Quote[2] However, from our understanding of physiology, psychology, cognition or culture, we can identify situations that create the proper context for the expression of such an emotion.
Quote[3] Game design works backwards . . . trying to predict player emotions from changes in the interactive system. . . . most changes require testing.

I would guess that Bura is moving in the direction of rather strict control. I agree with [1], and even the slightly contradictory [2] -- We cannot guarantee a player's 'interpretations' or how exactly they will feel about the work, but we are capable of prediction (and therefore engineering).

But when with [3] Bura begins to move confidently toward defining game design as a process which which works in one specific way, I begin to expect this presumed process is not a process of connecting with one's own deep feeling or humanity but one of coming up with cold tools of measurement and entrusting emotion to them. (As hinted at by the titular word, 'engineering')


QuoteI'm looking for abstract game variables that could measure any game in any genre.

And there we have it. Abstraction and measurement. Hmm.

Nothing could be more unappealingly seductive to me. (More on that later.)


Bura attempts to build a logical foundation out of such 'variables' or 'characteristics' as 'freedom' and 'choice'. As an example, here he defines what makes a choice too quickly and too plainly:

Quote. . . a choice is only real if it is informed, meaningful, and irreversible.

Why, why, and why? Bura attempts to justify each of these but it is a too-broad brushstroke he uses. This isn't to say that he should justify these at excessive length, but these topics he skips over in a sentence are entire conversations themselves which could fill an entire book each.

Why must a player be informed before making a choice?
QuoteOtherwise, his choice is random since he cannot predict its consequences.

Why must choices be meaningful to the player? ("The player must have sufficient data to describe the context of his choice . . . and the costs associated [with] each of them.")
QuoteIf there are neither costs nor contexts, choices don't matter.

Why must "a choice, to be truly significant*", be irreversible?
QuoteOtherwise, this means that the cost paid is meaningless.

*I'd like to hang on to this word for a moment, significant. Bura has already fallen deeply into the trap of game-states. Players do not play games to move through game-states, they play games to feel things. This was practically his opening statement about the purpose of games. Therefore he should here use the word 'significant' to mean 'significant in terms of feeling', but I would say he is rather using the word to describe 'significant in terms of the player's agency over game-state'.

It's especially frustrating that this lies under the header, 'What is a Good Game.' If we were here trying to differentiate between one type of game-state transformation in order to understand the effect or structure of a game containing this type of game-state transformation (a 'choice') rather than another, this would be a very different conversation.


This next section, Game Design Variable Categories, starts with a completely and utterly arbitrary categorization, and yet is meant to provide (if memory serves) the beginning of a huge objective framework.

The level of arbitration here is on par with Pokemon's types: What would a 'fire water' Pokemon look like? Well, that's a steam Pokemon, or maybe an underwater volcano Pokemon.

That's what we have here, unfortunately.

QuoteAction is the level of the body, the visceral, immediacy and short feedback loops.

QuoteFreedom deals with measuring choices and opportunities for choices.

QuoteFreedom at the Action level: Everything that empowers or hinders the player while making short-term choices. Action opportunities (An enemy presenting its weak spot, Finding a key in a Zelda dungeon). New tools allowing new interactions (Zelda's boomerang or grappling hook, Mario's flying cap). New abilities (Increased health, Increased strength).


Further frustration comes from even less justification: While earlier in this article there is an attempt -- a too-short one, in my reckoning -- to justify Freedom as one of these categories, the rest have almost no justification besides a passing mention.

Action, System, Self, Social, Freedom, Mastery, and Data.

I am going to see if there is anything left to engage with if I completely disregard this silly categorization.


No, not really.

I'll draw out a couple quotes in order to help illustrate what I think has gone wrong in Bura's approach.

Quote[1] I seem to be able to describe the effect of any game interaction I can think of as variations in one or several variables belonging to these categories.

Quote[2] I hope that like Mendeleev's periodic table of elements, this or a different model will help game designers establish a common language devoid of fuzziness and interpretations.

Placed right at the end of this article, [2] compares these categories to the periodic table of elements and is a perfect encapsulation of what has misled Bura: the periodic table did not establish a common language on completely arbitrary categories. (At least, not to my understanding.)

I have played, often, with arbitrary 'toy' categories, and the thing about them is that [1] if you define any sort of category as a division of a space you can almost always fit things inside of them, and shrug away things that lie in the grey area. Consider 'good' and 'evil'. Consider 'inside' and 'outside'. There are other ways to divide space: being able to fit things inside categories does not make those categories good, useful, meaningful, or objective.

Quote[3] such a model might even lead us to predict the existence of yet unknown elements, unexplored territories in the game design space.

This isn't untrue, though I would use the phrase inspire the creation of rather than predict the existence of.

To end on a positive note, these sorts of models are not useless or foolish: What is useless and foolish is the suggestion that any one of them might -- ever -- "establish a common language devoid of fuzziness and interpretations".

It is possible that someday we will come to understand the human brain well enough that we can begin to see if a categorization of all possible realms of feeling is even theoretically achievable.

Game designers will not be the ones to get there first.

Game design is art.