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Emotions in Games (talk at LEGup)

Last night I gave a presentation on ‘Emotions in Games’ at the London Educational Games meetup (LEGup) at their website launch party (you can see the new website at I’ve also written an article for it’s opening which you can go straight to with this link.

Many thanks for those that gave me feedback on it. I hope it wasn’t too much info in the 5ish minutes that I was given, but I do hope it gave many people food for thought about games as an art form and how we can better design them.

As promised, you can find the slides/prezi that I used here: Emotions in Games Prezi.

I’ve written some notes on each slide because there was rather a lot of material I was trying to convey. My problem here was that I recently wrote my MA thesis on how ambiguity can be used to broaden and deepen emotional engagement within videogames,  so trying to select and condense an 18,000 word essay into 5 minutes is a definite challenge!

Notes on slides below. Feedback welcome and appreciated.

Numbers correspond to appropriate slide number.

  1. Contact details for myself. Presentation is on how we can engage players in a broader and deeper set of emotional experiences than many games currently offer.
  2. Why is it important to ask this question? Why can’t we leave things as they are?
  3. Firstly, it’s important for the maturation of the medium. If video games are going to be considered on a level pegging with other mediums/art forms such as the written word, film and art, then we need to pay attention to their emotional sophistication.
  4. Games are also unique. No other medium has the element of interactivity. I believe that this means that if we don’t study and explore the emotional experiences possible within games, then we are selling ourselves short and doing injustice to this very new and powerful art form.
  5. But how do we define ’emotion’? What do I mean by ’emotions’?
  6. Very difficult to define. Many people have very different ways of defining emotion. Image shown is Robert Plutchik’s map of emotions.
    (There are other theories such as those put forward by Paul Ekman and Nico Frijda amongst others. Frijda’s the Laws of Emotions is a good read if you’re really interested in the theory of what an emotion actually IS and how we define and elicit them).
  7. So instead I used an observation to describe the problem. If you walk into any bookstore or DVD shop you can, in addition to all the romance, comedy and action-orientated books/films available (which may be entertaining, but ultimately quite shallow and not too challenging) find many other types. Titles that have a moral, philosophical, social, ethical message and so on. Films that challenge our world views and our prejudices, comment on racial or cultural issues etc.
  8. But walk into a video games shop such as GAME and this isn’t the case. Most games are action, driving, sports, sci-fi, fantasy and often involve intense violence. Games are inherently emotional, but it’s often a case of ‘same old, same old’.
  9. Currently…
  10. Most games are designed to be similar to blockbuster hollywood movies – all glossy sheen, high action, but little intellectual stimulation, or frivolous time wasters.
  11. I think this is because the industry is obsessed with the element of ‘fun’, whatever that is anyway. Fun of course is important in games, but people focus on it too much sometimes to the exclusion of other things. This is especially the case with many indie games where there is a focus on novel mechanics – a mechanic is designed/found/chosen and polished and iterated upon within an inch of it’s life, and the game revolves around that.
    Schindler’s List is a great film, but would anyone really want to describe it as fun? Is it any less of a film because it’s not fun? Is it even what we’d call entertaining? So why do games have to be fun, all the time? Maybe it would be better to focus on making them engaging.
  12. There are some good examples of games that do things differently.
  13. Labels to the side of the slide.
  14. So how do these games here do it?
  15. Music is very important and often undervalued in other games. Music is a kind of hotline to the heart, and is more emotive than images or animation. Fortunately, it’s also much cheaper! Most of the games in my selection use sound (or its absence) to create a definite emotional affect.
  16. They also seem to have been designed with a message as the starting point (cf. mechanic/market/genre). What are they trying to convey? What emotion are they trying to create? What message are they trying to impart? What experience are they trying to portray?
  17. The rest of the game is then built around what would further communicate this message.
  18. Many of these games use abstract representation. The player has to work a bit harder to work out what’s going on, what each game element represents and how they are all related to each other.
  19. Environmental narrative is also a good one. This is where a story is told by the world of the game, rather than story being imparted using written word, dialogue or cut-scenes. Again, the player has to make an effort oftentimes to piece the clues together.
  20. The net effect of this is that you create a gameplay experience where some things are definite and then other things are less defined. The player has to work to connect all the pieces together in their mind. What is this? How is it related to this element over here? What does this relationship mean?
    This means the player is more likely to partner with the game to create an emotional experience that is finely adjusted and nuanced just for them. The spaces and gaps in interpretation allow the player to involve themselves more in the game and insert their mind more fully into the experience. An increased effort of this kind increases the likelihood of emotional payoff, and in a way that speaks to them more personally than a game where everything is clear, explicit and laid out for them.
  21. In summary:
  • Think about starting with the message or experience you want to convey, rather than the mechanic.
  • Focus less on making games fun, focus more on making them engaging.
  • Leave space in your experience for the player to inhabit and co-create their own emotional experience.


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