The following article was originally published by Edge Magazine
A Scottish research centre has been helping to shape our understanding of emotional responses for over a decade. Founded in 2002 with the support of Microsoft, Glasgow Caledonian University’s eMotionLab has analysed everything from how hard gamers press buttons to their reactions to multiplayer environments.
Now, centre director Dr Jonathan Sykes is looking to work with more developers in his quest to understand how game design elements affect players on an emotional level. “We’re testing the audience response to design ideas. It’s as simple as that,” says Sykes. “We are exploring the notions of game designer as auteur versus game designer as experience engineer.”
In practice that means hooking up players to sensors and monitoring their reactions. But Sykes, his team and his students try to interfere as little as possible with a player’s experience. They ensure a subject’s environment is ‘ecologically valid’ – in other words, the space looks like a living room. There are no wires attached to electrodes, no eye-tracking kit monitoring what people are looking at when certain responses are triggered. But there is often one notable difference between the test environment and a subject’s own home – the silent presence of someone else in the room.
“Emotion is a form of communication, and as humans we are good at reading other people’s emotions,” Sykes tells us. “We know when people are smiling and frowning,” which means we tend to respond accordingly when we encounter real faces. The experience of playing games is different in that we often face abstractions such as shapes, cartoon-like graphics or stylised imitations of human forms.
“That really does make a difference. If we get someone to play a game on their own, facial expressions will change very little and they just look like they are really concentrating. But if we put someone in the room, just behind them, suddenly the expression appears. When we looked at multiplayer games versus people playing on their own people showed more emotion with someone sitting next to them.”
Sykes, who studied psychology and human-computer interaction, gained a PhD by examining how people form cognitive maps in Unreal. His analysis of facial movements is inspired and informed by the work of US psychologist Paul Ekman, a celebrated expert in connecting emotional states to physical gestures. But that’s just part of the story and one of many techniques used by Sykes’ team.
One of the key measures of arousal – the state of being reactive to stimuli which particularly interests Sykes – is galvanic skin response. This widely studied phenomenon sees the skin become moist when the subject is in a state of excitement. As people sweat, creating more moisture, this has an impact on resistance, which can be measured using a tiny electrical current. That physiological response indicates a subject is emotionally aroused, but cannot on its own describe whether the feelings are positive or negative. Hence the need to correlate physiological data, testimony from subjects and psychologists’ analysis when trying to flesh out a picture of people’s reactions to games.
“We sometimes show them a video of what they were playing and ask them to tell us what they were thinking. But when asking people you are relying on their memory,” adds Sykes.
Videogames are not eMotionLab’s sole focus. Responses to other forms of entertainment including video footage have been scrutinised, with often fascinating results: “We also monitor boardgames and found we can have stronger emotional responses than with games as the other people are opposite you. What happens in the play space doesn’t stay there. Take Diplomacy, for instance. If someone stabs you in the back you might not talk them for another year. It’s a different experience because it is not mediated in 3D as games are.”
It’s no wonder, then, that Sykes predicts players will enjoy a richer emotional experience from titles which aspire to visual fidelity. Games with increasingly realistic graphics blur the line between fictional experiences in which players empathise with characters and the direct emotion felt when, say, playing a board game in the physical presence of friends.
“When you are watching a movie or reading a novel you know it is not true. There is no point in feeling scared, but you feel the fictional emotion because you empathise with the characters,” says Sykes. So, he argues,when a realistic AI enemy or avatar strikes you down, you are likely to feel it more keenly.
The potential value of the eMotionLab’s kit and expertise has attracted clients including the National Health Service and BBC children’s TV channel CBeebies. Sykes hopes more big-name developers will come forward with titles for them to evaluate too.
Currently a lot of the evaluation work sees students at Glasgow Caledonian testing their own creations. The university has as range of undergraduate games degrees including more conventional courses: BA (Hons) Computer Games (Art and Animation), BSc (Hons) Computer Games(Design) and BSc (Hons) Computing and Computer Games. Also on offer is BSc (Hons) Psychology with Interactive Entertainment which combines psychology and game design. For more, visit the Glasgow Caledonian website.
There are plans to involve students from as early as their second of four years in the eMotionLab research activity. For now, the principal form of engagement future developers and researchers have with the centre is in a final-year module called Emotional Game Design. This research activity is seen as a perfect complement to the practical opportunities on offer at Glasgow Caledonian, which includes hosting the Scottish Game Jam, part of the Global Game Jam. “We have the Scottish leg and have been there since the beginning,” says Sykes. “Students pay nothing, get fed and make games. It’s a great way to network with the leaders of the future and last time all our graduates who came had jobs.” The next game jam is being held on January 25 to 27, 2013.
In the meantime, Sykes and his team continue to assess which rewards and challenges spark an emotional response in players in the eMotionLab. “There are a number of different things which give you a spike in emotional response,” explains Sykes. “Rewards, such as when you hear that music when you open a box in Zelda, give you feedback. There’s a spike during an action scene whether watching or taking part. One thing we have stayed clear of is the question of gun violence, which is such a controversial issue.”
“We ask whether it’s the game designer’s job to make games that sell, or to make a perfect piece of art. We are more audience-driven, and focus on making sure developers push the player’s buttons.”
Author: Lee Hall