More from the ACM archives I have been looking at.
Grant Tavinor, “Video Games, Fiction, and Emotion,” ACM Conference Proceedings, Vol. 123, 2005. 201-207.
Mr. Tavinor’s work is focused on how we feel about the games we play, and how games evoke those feelings; he talks a bit about interactive fiction (though, I think, defining it a bit more broadly than as the text-based form I tend to mean on this site). But his conclusions leave out a lot of possibility. Here’s a sample of what I mean:
Emotions are involved in the affective framing of fictional worlds, making salient the goals and needs of those fictional worlds, so that our interaction in them is motivated and enhanced. The player of a video game feels angry at their inability to overcome the massive fiery lobster monster, frustrated by the difficulty of completing the platform-jumping task, fearful of possible loss, or elated at defeating the hordes of mutants or crazed chimpanzees. Consequently, the emotions seem to guide participation in the fictional world of the video game by boosting attention and concentration to deal with these challenges. The emotions we have for video games are framing devices that channel our interaction with these fictions.
So far as it goes, that’s all true, I think: I’ve certainly felt plenty frustrated at video games when I couldn’t finish a level without restarting it a million times, which is one reason I tend not to play certain kinds of game at all. But it also locates all the player’s possible emotional response at the interactivity level: you can get annoyed, frustrated, angry, or elated only in respect to your agency — your ability to control things — within the game.
Tavinor doesn’t include a couple of other emotions I would have though were moderately common in conventional video games: curiosity and sense of wonder. These tend to tie into exploration and require a certain amount of freedom within the game world. (Tangential point: people are fond of reviling the game industry’s drive for more polygons, more content, more shiny-ness, arguing that these things don’t lead to game innovation. While these critics have a point, the motivation is partly a desire to keep up the sense of wonder. I remember being awed by the beauty of Myst, and then again by Riven, and that was a significant part of the pleasure of playing.)
Sandbox games encourage curiosity too: what can I get away with in this game? If I explode this car, will the game take that in stride and build it into the plot? What if I pour all the water in my flask onto my spellbook? Will the letters wash away? It’s so gratifying to think of odd ways in which the game might not work, to experiment with them and find that they’ve been accounted for. (Some IF is terrific at this: the most recent example I can think of is Adventurer’s Consumer Guide, which has a number of inventive ways for the player to screw up and get a losing ending. As I played the game, I experienced a lot of curiosity, followed by amusement at the outcomes, and satisfaction that the author had anticipated my moves.)
And now we’ve hit two of an important triad in game design: agency, freedom, story. (Grand Text Auto had a long discussion on the challenge of writing all three of these into a game. It’s a few years old now, but still worth looking at if you haven’t seen it.)
But story can evoke any kind of emotion at all. It’s a more volatile component than the other two, though. People are, I think, comparatively uniform in being frustrated and then elated by challenges. It’s true that they aren’t uniform in how difficult they find a specific challenge, so the same puzzle in the same game can be way too hard for one person and way too easy for another, but still, the nature of the reaction tends to be fairly consistent. People’s reactions to stories are a lot harder to gauge, because they depend much more on personal experience, sympathies for game characters, background and belief systems, and so on.
It’s not just the IF-ification that makes this true. My mother hates Romeo and Juliet. She thinks they’re both saps who didn’t need to get themselves into that stupid mess.