How Games Move Us: Emotion By Design
by Katherine Isbister
The MIT Press, Cambridge, MA, London, England, 2016
192 pp., illus. 47 b&w. Trade, £17.95 $24.95
Reviewed by James Sweeting
How Games Move Us is the latest entry in a series of books that comprise the "Playfully Thinking" series from MIT Press. The title of Katherine Isbister's book does not immediately give the impression that it would be a suitable fit for this series. Yet what becomes increasingly apparent throughout this condensed book is that player agency is what enables videogames to have the emotional power that they do, for it is the unique form of interactivity that separates them from other mediums.
Player agency is expanded upon by Isbister's focus on two main concepts: choice and flow. By interacting with games, activity is generated in parts of the brain linked with motivation and reward. This relationship with videogames helps to differentiate it from other mediums, and it is why the role of choice is so important. Veteran game designer Sid Meier, creator of the best-selling game series Civilization, claimed, "a [good] game is a series of interesting choices". It is through these choices that players have the unique ability to change the way the events occur. Even when the overarching impact of the choices made is fairly limited, the subtle influence (or even the illusion of) is powerful enough to make it a personal and emotional experience.
Choice is also what results in the second unique quality, flow. Researcher Mihaly Csikzentmihalyi coined this term, and it describes the ease with which players enter a pleasurable optimal performance state. It is whilst in a state of flow that people are at their best in a given activity,in this instance, videogames. The combination of narrative and skill that comprise many videogame experiences enhance this notion of flow. This is evident in the vocabulary players' use when discussing the emotions they feel when playing videogames. Words such as curiosity, excitement, challenge, and triumph signify a presence of flow, whereas frustration, confusion, and discouragement signify a lack of flow.
Isbister makes the important distinction that merely watching videogames is not the same as playing them. Whilst she does not mention the existence of Let's Plays (online videos either live or pre-recorded of people playing videogames), the crucial element is that the emotional power of videogames is generated through the act of play, for it is the role of choice and presence of flow that contribute to this.
With film or literature one may empathise with what is taking place, but Isbister states that they do not generate the feeling of guilt or remorse that players experience whilst playing videogames. As they are not responsible for the actions depicted/described like they are in a videogame. A horrific event that takes place in a videogame (such as the use of white phosphorous in Spec Ops: The Line) might be a narrative part of the game, but it still requires the input of the player for this event to occur, and therefore the player is responsible.
Another distinguishing element is the presence of avatars in videogames, which Isbister states are more effective than protagonists of other mediums due to possibilities of multiple psychological levels. There are immersive differences that result from the way in which the avatar is viewed, whether that is from the third person or the first person. The third person perspective can remind the player that they are someone else, but creating their own character could reinforce that they are playing a version of themselves. First person on the other hand (whether playing a created character or not) puts the player in the head of the avatar; for example, when an NPC (Non-Playable Character) talks to the avatar, it is as if they are talking directly to the player.
The aspect of character creation is actively explored by Isbister whilst examining social play, adding that the more in depth versions creates a sense of ownership for the player as well as their actions as they are the one doing this. This was notable in the 2004-2012 Massively Multiplayer Online (MMO) game City of Heroes whereby players could roleplay as their own created superheroes. This offered what Isbister defines as transformative experiences, the kind that no other medium can provide. There is a shortcoming to the experience for this particular form of videogame in that it is wholly dependent on connection to the Internet as well as continued support from its developer. Once a developer (or more likely its publisher) decides to no longer support an online only videogame, its main servers are shut down, and unless members of the community with the required knowledge are able to set up their own server, the game becomes unplayable for everyone - meaning the experiences that the game provided remain only a memory for those that played it.
The videogames medium has been experimenting with physicality for almost as long as it has existed, yet even at its most successful its implementation has been an uneasy one. However, Isbister identifies the impact of body posture and how this can affect feelings. This might explain why I felt so triumphant at the end of Nintendo's The Legend of Zelda: Skyward Sword for the Wii, a game that I predominantly played standing in order to fully utilise the motion controls. Just the use of motion controls over traditional controller based controls is
enough to produce a more emotional response when implemented correctly so as not to detract from the sense of flow previously mentioned.
In the final chapter Isbister looks at how videogames can bridge distances to create intimacy and connection. Here she discusses Nintendo's Animal Crossing: New Leaf for its 3DS handheld system, a game where the player becomes Mayor of a village habited by different anthropomorphic animals whilst gradually expanding their home and decorating it. It is from this example that Johan Huizinga's "magic circle" is mentioned. He coined the term back in the 1930s, and it is just as relevant today. As it refers to "a co-created safe and bounded context in which players can mingle fantasy and reality, and which thus allows for freer and more flexible social connection and emotional connection." This freedom is evident in Animal Crossing as it gives the player the opportunity to invite others to their village and explore an environment that can become very personal to them, especially their virtual home which can be an expression of who they are due to the high degree of customisation available. This is all in the safety of the magic circle of play.
How Games Move Us is an accessible book for those new to Game Studies, but without being overly simplistic for those who are not. The problem with this book though, and it is one that afflicts many from Game Studies, are that the examples given are already somewhat outdated. Motion controls in particular became irrelevant by 2012 with Skyward Sword seen as one of the last notable efforts by a major developer to implement them in a core title. And despite continued efforts by Sony and Microsoft to create accessories that provided some form of motion controls, these were short lived and largely abandoned.
It is only very recently that the role of the body has been considered as part of game design, but specifically in regards to Virtual Reality (VR). The main physicality comes from the tracking of head movement, but by the end of 2016 the three main VR headsets will have some form of motion tracking controller available, allowing the player greater physical interaction in the virtual world.
This poses new potential insights into the emotional impact of videogames, given the increased immersive aspect of VR. But Isbister's focus on choice and flow as crucial elements for determining the emotional influence of videogames is an elegant means of examining the medium and can continue to be of use as videogames continue to experiment with its form.