Interactivity and the Emotional Experience of Gaming

This post contains spoilers for Fallout: New Vegas and the Last of Us.

The interactivity of video games sets the stage for them to have a deep psychological impact. Typically, this potential is discussed in negative terms. We talk about how games can become an addiction or how some titles glorify violence. As much as the industry dislikes this criticism, we have to admit that at some level it’s fair.

On the same token, however, video games need to be recognized for their ability to foster deeply emotional experiences and in some cases to inspire self-reflection. Unlike other forms of media—books, film, art—the active role of the player adds a compelling dynamic. You aren’t just watching a story playout. You are responsible for moving it forward. You participate. You become a character and feel what he or she feels.

This emotional potential has a number of implications. Before we dig into them, let’s explore a few examples of what I mean.

In the Mojave

Fallout: New Vegas drops the player into a post-apocalyptic Las Vegas wasteland. The game’s tone has it meandering from dark humor to outright darkness. Along the way, you have the option to travel with companions. Having a non-player character at your side makes combat a bit easier and helps you carry more loot. Of these companions, my favorite is Boone.

Boone is a grizzled sniper, a stereotypical brooding loner. At first, his character seems pretty flat. His wife died in the wasteland and he has quite a chip on his shoulder about it. As you continue to travel together, he shares more tidbits of his story. He tells you that a gang that calls itself The Legion is responsible for his wife’s death and that he suspects somebody he trusted betrayed him, ultimately triggering the kidnapping that lead to her demise.

The Legion are well-established villains in the game, so all of this sounds fairly standard. In fact, it feels a bit cliché.

But after you’ve traveled with Boone for a while, trotting over miles of desert together, exploring abandoned buildings and fighting off hordes of enemies, he decides that he trusts you. The odd thing is, you trust him too. With his story teasing out over the natural course of a long game, he starts to feel like an actual companion. Boone asks you to help him uncover who betrayed him and his wife.

At the conclusion of the quest, he tells you how his wife really died.

The Legion kidnapped his wife. He tracked them through the desert, just him and his battered sniper rifle. He followed them all the way back to their camp. He crept over the crest of a hill and saw an army of gang members bidding on slaves. Leering. Jeering. Frothing. They drug his wife up to be auctioned, and Boone knew what that fate would mean.

It was him, his rifle, and thousands of Legion. He couldn’t fight them all and save his wife, but he could save her from her horrific fate. He lined up his scope and took the shot. Killing the women he loved to protect her.

I had to put the controller down and step away for a few hours. Even now, that story still affects me.

You can watch Boone tell the story on YouTube, but it won’t have the same impact as if you had spent hours adventuring through an unforgiving wasteland, protecting each other, tossing each other ammo, and discovering new wrinkles to the world. Watching the story is different from playing the story.

The Sacrifice is too Great

The Last of Us puts you in the shoes of Joel, one of the survivors of a zombie outbreak. The Last of Us has been praised extensively for its story already, but there’s an aspect of the player’s role in the story that I haven’t seen discussed yet deeply impacted me.

The game opens with the beginning of the outbreak. Total chaos. You, as Joel, grab your daughter to flee, desperately trying to find safe haven. You crash a car. You duck down side allies. You narrowly escape the grips of zombies. And just when you think you’ve reached safety, a soldier opens fire on you and your daughter. She dies in your arms.

The game fast forwards, and Joel is naturally jaded. He’s a reluctant survivor, and as cliché as that character design sounds, you can’t help but agree with how he feels. The game has barely started and the line between you as a player and Joel as a character starts to blur. Soon, you end up escorting a young girl—Ellie—out of the safe zone and across a destroyed, zombie infested countryside. You learn that Ellie has some sort of natural immunity, and a group of rebels wants to use that immunity to create a cure.

Like the journey with Boone, The Last of Us slowly builds the relationship between Joel (you) and Ellie. The pacing is such that as the characters start to feel closer and care more about each other, you feel the same way. The characters endure trials and tribulations and learn to rely on one another to overcome a slew of near-death scenarios.

Then you arrive at the rebel science institute. You’re tired and battered, so they usher Ellie away to get to work. It’s a moment of relief. You did it. You made it. There’s a chance to save humanity.

The catch: the experimental procedure to extract and duplicate Ellie’s immunity will kill her.

No. That can’t happen. Joel can’t lose Ellie too. So you grab a weapon and start to fight. The same guerilla brutality that helped you fight through hordes of zombies helps you battle the rebels. You kill them with your hands. With shivs. With guns. And you kill them as fast you can because the procedure is going to start any second now. You have to get to the lab in time to save Ellie. The game doesn’t plop a timer on the screen to tell you this, the tension of the scene and Joel’s inner-dialog is enough. You feel that you’re running out of time. You feel it deep in your bones that Ellie could already be dead.

You bust into the lab. Ellie is on the operating table surrounded by three doctors. Bullet. Bullet. Bullet. With blood on the wall and their bodies on the floor, you take Ellie into your arms and start looking for an escape.

It’s an emotionally harrowing experience, but when I watched the ending again on YouTube later, I noticed that you didn’t have to kill all the doctors. Only one threatens you with a scalpel. The other two cower when you burst into the room. You can save Ellie without total bloodshed.

For me, however—and this is the part that still gets me—there was no hesitation. Ellie was in danger, and I was fully committed to saving her. I came into the room and immediately started shooting. It didn’t even occur to me that there was a choice.

As someone who rarely shoots guns and considers himself a pacifist, seeing myself behave this way was emotionally jarring. It was purely pretend, but at the same time, it wasn’t. I was so engrossed in the story that I became Joel in those moments, caring as much about Ellie as he would care. And the reality of what the intensity meant for my actions still has me thinking about what my decisions within the game mean for me as a person and how I feel about violence.

You can watch this scene on YouTube as well, but again without the game-long build-up of being with Ellie, it is unlikely to have the same weight.

Where We Go from Here

The storytelling potential of video games is well-known at this point to anyone with even a small amount of exposure to mainstream gaming. There is more that could be done of course. In the case of Boone, putting the player in his shoes having to decide between ending his wife’s life to spare her a lifetime of torment or making the futile effort to take on an army alone would create a compelling, discussion-worthy experience. You pulling the trigger, after all, is much different from a character telling you about how he pulled the trigger. In the case of rescuing Ellie from a rebel group and their doctors, choosing to be hyper-violent could have consequences for the player, forcing you to reconcile the fact that you killed unarmed, cowering civilians.

But the emotional potential of video games extends beyond storytelling.

In massive multiplayer games like World of Warcraft the emotional facet of the game is driven by community and friendship. The game is meant to be played with other people, making the deeper experience of the game about sharing moments and building memories. In a game like Madden, the emotional element is driven by friendly competition and sports fantasy. You immerse yourself into the virtual sport to such a degree that you sweat at tense moments and pump your fist when you pull off a play at a critical moment. In a game like Words for Rice, the emotional element is driven by feeling as though your actions make a real difference, like answering a simple quiz can actually help someone improve their lives.

All of these games have created powerful experiences for millions of gamers, but we are still just bobbing at the surface of what interactive emotionality in games could actually become. Recognizing that the potential is there is a critical first step. It means that gamers can begin to demand it and designers can begin to listen.