Tuesday, June 9, 2009

Emotion in Videogames

Videogames are so engaging in so many ways, yet they remain emotionally stunted. Even though Ken Kutaragi referred to the PS2's main processor as the "Emotion Engine," it was just another videogame console.

Games can appeal to our animal need to plan ahead, manage resources, survive, and strive for goals. They're great at stimulating the fight-or-flight instinct, and generating a sense of satisfaction and excitement in completing a difficult objective. And they can appeal to our sense of aesthetics with film-like emotional impact -- the right audiovisual atmosphere can generate uneasiness or fear, often used to great effect in horror games. A good game score puts us into a martial or relaxed frame of mind, and well-timed use of dynamic changes in music can lead us smoothly along the emotional path a game's designer has planned for us.

But games, as involving as they can be, are not very good at eliciting the "higher emotions," for lack of a better term. They don't handle love or friendship very well, for example, and it's telling that the best example I can personally come up with dates back 25 years. So let's start there. I definitely felt something when...

(*** 1983 SPOILER ALERT ***)
... Floyd the robot nobly sacrificed himself in Infocom's Planetfall.
(*** /SPOILER ***

I actually wept, I'm not embarrassed to admit. I had spent many hours in the company of Floyd, working through puzzles while he kept himself endearingly occupied nearby. I wouldn't say I really got to KNOW him, but I definitely formed a bond with his character during the game. And when I realized he would not be with me at the very end of the journey, that his story ended before mine did, and in the manner that it did, I was bereft in a very real way.

Why does this not occur more often? Well, the text-adventure format had a huge advantage in this regard -- the image in my head was real in a way that an illustration on the screen could not be. I had a very definite mental image of Floyd, goofing around, tagging along, providing comic relief; my brain filled in the gaps that the technology could not. So when he "died," it was also very vivid and real. Graphics, as amazing as they can be, can never equal what the brain can do with an evocative chunk of text, at least where emotions are concerned.

For instance, Valve's Half-Life 2 kills off human characters I have gotten to know -- I have stood with them on elevators and fought at their sides, all from a real-time, first-person perspective. But they're obviously animated figures, with canned dialogue and scripted behaviors -- I can appreciate them as characters in a story, but they don't feel like real people to me. I may be shocked when such a simulacrum dies, in terms of plot development, but I don't really feel sad about their passing, because they're obviously not real.

But graphics alone aren't the issue. The Turing Test is tough to pass, and may never be passed. And without that leap forward, game characters are still just game characters. Even Planetfall was only creating a pet-like bond between a human being and a cute, dedicated virtual creation. Floyd was great, but he was not a human being; he was just there, and I enjoyed having him around. But there wasn't any conversation or deep interaction involved. I doubt it would have worked had designer Steve Meretzky put a person in that role -- the illusion of reality would have been too hard to maintain.

And so maybe I'm looking for something that's not really possible. Human beings are infinitely variable and unpredictable. Computers can be random and richly data-driven, but that's not the same thing. And game designs can be rewarding and surprising and involving in many ways, but they can't present us with a character we're going to fall in love with. Even more limited A.I. has not matured as quickly as everyone predicted twenty years ago -- there's a reason online multiplayer has become a standard feature in high-end games: computer opponents just aren't as much fun as other human beings. When running around and shooting at enemies without getting stuck behind a rock remains a challenge, convincing conversation and empathy are not even on the horizon.

Still, I look forward to that pioneering game that climbs over the wall and is able to engage the head, the hands, and the heart. I may not see it in my lifetime, and it may not ever happen. But I keep looking just the same.

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