Praise for Chris Bateman

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"I don’t think there is such a thing as a funny rule, although there are funny fictional consequences to rules. (I welcome counter examples to this claim!)"

Sure: QWOP. There's not much to the fiction, and I know that the rules are funny by themselves because when I describe them to people, they laugh.

To the larger point: I think you're making a fairly weak claim at this point. Basically, that people only feel empathy for depictions of people, which is undoubtedly true. And at the moment, most games depict people through fictional elements rather than mechanics.

Some games do depict people through mechanics, though. The Sims, for example. I can't say a Sims game has ever made me cry, but I have found it upsetting when, say, a Sim gets into a state where she's too depressed to eat or sleep. That state arises because of the game mechanics. You could claim that the emotion actually comes from the player's internal fiction, but it'd be more of a stretch. When you get down to it, all emotional reactions to fiction depend on the audience's internal associations.

The Sims are pretty crude representations of people. But it's entirely possible that a more sophisticated representation along these lines could inspire real empathy through mechanics.

I give as counterexamples the Magic: the gathering cards in Unglued, and the SJG "Momentous Unmasking" T-shirt produced for Munchkin. Both of these contain rules that are sufficiently funny that I laugh as I read them.

I might have missed this, but why the particular fixation on "cry"? Is this some stand-in for larger emotional engagement or is it a specific claim about a very specific emotional state? Like, would you accept "been made sad by" as a standin for cry, or is the exact criteria "literally have tears streaming down yr face"?

because, hey, games have tweaked at my emotions in a series of weird ways through "mechanics" (IE not cutscenes). I think Braid's mechanics lead to some of those weird moments where you feel bad about stomping on a goomba with its sad eyes and plaintive meow (or its inevitable death at the hands of a cannon - or in the toybox stage where you had to move forward to proceed, which forces a goomba to march into a wall of spikes - or where your shadow has to leap into a pit of spikes to hand you a key.)

Child of Eden didn't make me "cry" but it made me feel a whole array of emotions, not in the least because standing up and waving my arms I couldn't help but use my entire body which "primed" me to feel something at the conclusion of the sweeping music score / weirdly symbolic boss battle. If I were a little less reserved (or, uh, a little more under the influence I guess) I would probably have found some tears welling up here and there. I guess you could argue "music" and "visuals" aren't a "mechanic" but, uh, it's an abstract music game. Without music or visuals it wouldn't be much of a game (sidenote: isn't the entire backlash against gamification centered around the idea that surgically isolating "game mechanics" fundamentally alters them from being "fun" to being "exploitation"?)

I'ma spoil inFamous2 here - if you play evil, you have to kill your sidekick. And not "watch a cutscene", but actually aim and take a shot at him multiple times. I liked Zeke (somehow, many people didn't) - being forced to kill him also had a significant emotional impact. Was this a decision the plot forced upon you in a non-interactive way? Yes. Did I-as-player personally have a hand in Zeke's murder? Also yes.

so no I have not literally actually cried during a game (although my mood has been altered by their mechanics), but for that matter I haven't cried at a painting or a statue either. So let's call this one... even?

In general I think I'm missing a point (almost certainly a personal problem) - if game mechanics can not make us cry, what does that mean? And if they can make us cry, also what does that mean?

Thanks for the comments everyone! As a general point, I do think the focus on crying is a bit ridiculous - but it's a recurrant topic that always attracts comments which is why I keep coming back to it! :)


Linehollis: "Sure: QWOP. There's not much to the fiction, and I know that the rules are funny by themselves because when I describe them to people, they laugh."

I'm not convinced by this - what's funny about QWOP is intimately related to the fiction - the fiction that you are controlling different parts of the body with the relevant keys. If instead of this representation you had to fill a bar by operating the keys in an equivalently arcane fashion, it would cease to be funny (unless there was *also* the representation). So this isn't a counter-example, I think.

"To the larger point: I think you're making a fairly weak claim at this point. Basically, that people only feel empathy for depictions of people, which is undoubtedly true. And at the moment, most games depict people through fictional elements rather than mechanics."

Yes, the nature of this post is that my previous claim is weakened to the point that it no longer makes sense to say 'a game has never made you cry' - yet I still maintain that in the sense of tragedy, this can only come about via representation and not via game mechanics (the point you say, perhaps correctly, is trivial).

It's not that "most games depict people through fictional elements rather than mechanics" because I think all games must depict people via fiction. The question concerns rules that might bring about tragic emotions mechanically rather than via the fiction. And this may, even by definition, be impossible.

The point here is to demonstrate that fiction is vitally important to games, as it is to all forms of art, and that when we deal with the emotions that games produce what's of interest is the relationship between the rules and the (represented) fiction. This may not have come across clearly.

"Some games do depict people through mechanics, though. The Sims, for example. I can't say a Sims game has ever made me cry, but I have found it upsetting when, say, a Sim gets into a state where she's too depressed to eat or sleep. That state arises because of the game mechanics."

Hmmm... well this is an interesting case because would it be emotionally effecting without the representation? If the mechanics of The Sims were reproduced using only cardboard tokens, would you still feel that way? If not, it's the representation that's relevant and not the mechanics.

(There would still be fiction involved even in the cardboard token example, but I think this would be more clearly mechanics-over-fiction, and the line is only a mirage anyway).

"When you get down to it, all emotional reactions to fiction depend on the audience's internal associations."

True enough! And this is part of my point here, that since the fiction does the work in terms of evoking emotions, the game mechanics are subsidiary to the fiction when it comes to evoking anything beyond the emotions of play. This being so, the challenge for game designers with respect to emotion is to find mechanics that support the emotions of the fiction - since there cannot be mechanics that by themselves evoke those emotions.


Peter: "I give as counterexamples the Magic: the gathering cards in Unglued, and the SJG 'Momentous Unmasking' T-shirt produced for Munchkin. Both of these contain rules that are sufficiently funny that I laugh as I read them."

These are great counter-examples! Yes, I have to accept meta-rules *could* be inherently funny without being reliant on fiction - but I could use a tangible example - I suspect the Unglued cards are mostly involved with fiction. Can you give me some sample wordings?

As an example of why the Unglued cards might not be 'fiction free': A friend of mine back from my M:TG days made me a card called "Spoon of Doom", a Black sorcery whereby target player must present a cup of tea (or bottle of alcohol) to the caster of lose five life. :) Even though this is a meta-rule of some kind in that it 'crosses the fourth wall' I think what makes it funny is the interrelationship between fiction and reality - that the fictional sorcery spell makes you go and make a cup of tea. So I wouldn't consider this to be a perfect counter-example, even though it gestures in the relevant direction.

Can you give me a rule wording that doesn't use the fiction so explicitly? I do believe this can be done, but I don't know of one and would love to have a counter-example at my finger tips. :)


IcePotato: "I might have missed this, but why the particular fixation on 'cry'?"

Beats me - I didn't do it. :) But as I mention above, it's one of those iconic situations that seems to attract people's attention.

"Like, would you accept 'been made sad by' as a standin for cry, or is the exact criteria 'literally have tears streaming down yr face'?"

Sure, I'm not actually that bothered about the tears, per se - what interests me is the relationship between rules and fiction in games, and specifically in the context of tragic emotions.

"I think Braid's mechanics lead to some of those weird moments where you feel bad about stomping on a goomba with its sad eyes and plaintive meow..."

I see this as a consequence of the fiction - if the goomba was a token and Braid was a boardgame, I don't think you'd feel bad. Do you feel otherwise?

"Child of Eden didn't make me 'cry' but it made me feel a whole array of emotions..."

The case of games that use music is coming up a lot at the moment - and its interesting, because fiction is a lot less apparent in music i.e. most music is not overtly representational. I think there's something interesting to be explored here in terms of the relationship between game mechanics and emotion.

"I guess you could argue 'music' and 'visuals' aren't a 'mechanic' but, uh, it's an abstract music game. Without music or visuals it wouldn't be much of a game"

Well I think the case here goes to whether the mechanics are the root of the emotional response - if an observer has the same emotional reaction to the music and visuals, it's not the mechanics at root. But if its unique to the player, then I think you can make a strong case for the mechanics as having a key role here.

"(sidenote: isn't the entire backlash against gamification centered around the idea that surgically isolating 'game mechanics' fundamentally alters them from being 'fun' to being 'exploitation'?)"

Well if the issue is exploitation, I don't see that fun is an excuse. World of Warcraft and Modern Warfare put the 'fun' into 'fundamentally exploitative'. :D

"Was this a decision the plot forced upon you in a non-interactive way? Yes. Did I-as-player personally have a hand in Zeke's murder? Also yes."

Does a mission goal count as a game mechanic? I think mission goals are closer to the fiction than the function, personally, although they straddle the line - and that line can't be drawn in any hard fashion anyway. Certainly the example you cite here is closer to what I'm gesturing at than the example of Aeris in FFVII since that was entirely within fiction.

Something similar happens in other games, in GTA: Vice City, for instance. But when asked to make the kill as a mission goal it just made me angry (not sad) since I felt that the game was just forcing me to kill this character without really creating a viable reason within the fiction that I should want to do so. It totally failed as tragedy for me, yet oddly I have found some people who found that mission tragic.

In all these cases, the emotional responses do occur in response to the fiction, but there is a role for the mechanics in the form a specific mission goal. But since it is the fiction of the mission goal that is the source of the emotions, it's a weaker counter-example than might potentially be possible.

"In general I think I'm missing a point (almost certainly a personal problem) - if game mechanics can not make us cry, what does that mean? And if they can make us cry, also what does that mean?"

I don't think you're missing the point - you're probably picking up on the sleight-of-hand that drives this argument. :)

If game mechanics cannot make us cry, it means that tragic emotional responses require fiction and talking of a game that makes you cry is misleading since a game-as-game cannot have this effect (and we already know how fiction can produce tragedy). This is my argument - which may, as Linehollis suggests, be too trivial to matter.

But if game mechanics *can* make us cry in a tragic sense without recourse to representative fiction (or with minimal recourse) then the emotions of play are wider than has currently been conceived. But I don't think this is the case. Tragedy requires fiction - and as such, talking of games-that-make-us-cry brings out the rather disappointing way that contemporary big budget games really want to be playable movies and not games.

---

One last remark: If artgames want to tread new artistic ground, they may need to explore new relationships between the way fiction evokes emotion and the way games evoke emotion. The former is well known, and supplanting these narrative techniques to games is to make games subservient to other narrative media. Games-as-art need to transcend this by looking deeper into what mechanics can make you feel and how to subvert that via the fiction.

Thanks for the comments everyone!

I think the issue here is that you've limited the definition of meaningful crying to "the ability to evoke empathy".

Emotions exist outside of books, movies and images! When I stub my toe it is just as meaningful as any tragic story. And it did not require a book or empathetic character to provoke a burst of crying.

Somewhere along the line, we started ignoring primary, personal sources of emotion and elevating secondary, empathetic sources of emotion. I suspect this is because 'empathy' is how non-game media works so you can't even formulate the concept of real emotions in the context of the media.

I'm curious about your thoughts on the primary vs shadow (or body loop vs as-if-body loop in somatic marker theory):
http://www.lostgarden.com/2011/07/shadow-emotions-and-primary-emotions.html

Game tragedy isn't about a character's tragedy or your cousin's tragedy. It is about me and my personal tragedy.

I personally want to toss the whole 'narrative' nomenclature out the door when talking about games. It is a poor fit to talk about the intense emotions of the Stanford Prison Experiment using the language of observational media. Instead: Set up real world situations involve time, social and resource pressure. As players respond physically, layer on appropriate cognitive labels to crystallize the exact flavor of emotion.

take care,
Danc.

I submit as a counterexample "Don't Look Back" by Terry Cavanaugh.

It's a bit hard to tell whether the part that 'made me cry' is a cutscene or not. If it is, it's about 1 second long; if it's not, it's a game rule that is invoked once, immediately prior to the game ending, and over which the player has no control. But that's irrelevant. The event, cutscene or no, has no emotional content on its own.

What gives it its punch is having played through the game, and having experienced the related mechanic dozens of times along the way. The gameplay has trained you to respond in a certain way to the mechanic, and when that mechanic is twisted around in the final moment, it's at once a terrifying loss of control and a profound reframing of your prior experiences.

I'm pretty sure it was the game mechanics that gave me that feeling in my gut (even the third time I played it, having somewhat forgotten the details since time #2!), not the story, which is conveniently one we've all heard a million times and which has never affected me thus before.

So the argument is basically "sure, games can make you cry in lots of different ways, but the one way I specifically meant was 'crying tears of empathy due to story elements', and games can't do that without story elements." Is that basically the gist of the post? If not, what am I missing?

You've edged out all possible argument by reducing your statement to a tautology, so I won't argue it. If you're hellbent on forcing the word "cry" to mean "cry in exactly the same way you would in a tearjerker book/movie/TV show", then yes, games must rely on book/movie/TV show tools in order to get those results. Okay, settled.

Let's move on to the interesting questions in this area, which you've glossed over.

Since you deigned to speak for all cultures and individuals in the entire world, I feel justified in making a sweeping generalization of my own: it is a fact that games with very minimalist story elements have at least the same chance of making you cry as games that are chock full of cutscenes. Why is that? If the storytelling elements are causing the storybook-like-crying behavior, why doesn't a game with tons more of it cause a lot more crying?

One good hypothesis is that it's just time. The longer you watch a TV show, the better chance the show can invoke emotional responses to you. Similarly, stats-heavy RPGs with minimal cutscenes last for very long times -- sometimes hundreds of hours -- and allow you to invest their bland characters with personality and attachment. If that's the case, is there a minimal amount of storytelling needed to invoke the cry-like-a-storybook effect?

Second, you've implicitly conflated tears with emotional investment, which is dangerous thinking. (I know you corrected it in the comments, but we both know that most readers are going to interpret your statements as "games can't make you feel bad like movies can".) But why would we react to a game in the same way as a movie, given that in the game, we are the main character?

Consider what Mario would feel if he saw Peach fall into the lava due to his inability to save her. Would it be tears of sadness, or tears of rage? You've lumped all types of "frustration" together and tossed them out. That's hogwash. If someone comes back to the game despite being incredibly frustrated, why are they doing it? Sure, it might be an OCD streak or a bar bet, but in my experience it's because I need to see my personal story end the way I want it to.

A related topic: you've conflated cutscene-based storytelling with ambiance-based storytelling. As a kid I fought Dracula at the end of Super Castlevania IV over and over and over because Dracula had to die, that's how it had to be. I hated that game and wanted to quit playing, but it had to end the right way. There are no conventional storytelling elements in the game: not a word of dialog, not a single cut-scene. The graphics are early-SNES awful. It is steeped in ambiance, however, especially music, and the game is long enough for you to invent your own story.

Now, in the Castlevania story I invented in my head, it's true that I didn't invent a princess, invent her death, and then cry about it. But I was feeling real emotional attachment due to the confluence of ambiance and game elements. (My brother, just watching me play, did not have the same reaction -- the gameplay elements may have enhanced the ambiance's storytelling powers... perhaps just by making me pay more attention to them? Or is it something more?) This is another interesting topic worthy of exploration.

To sum up: few would argue that a game of chess can make you weep for the death of the pawns. For the tightly constrained experience you've described, yes, we need to empathize with something anthropomorphic, same as in books or movies or TV.

But you're throwing out all the interesting questions, some of which are: how much of chess has to be turned into a story before it can cause tears? How little needs to change before the game stops being just a battle of wits and also becomes a personal battle, as you tell yourself a story?

Why troll with tautologies when there are more important things to think about? :)

I had a response that seemed a bit too long for a comment, so I posted it on my blog. The short version is that games struggle to make the player feel helpless in the ways you seem to find emotionally interesting, but creative design can get around that.

Dear all,

Before specific replies, let me make explicit what perhaps was only implicit before: the point of mounting this argument in this form is to encourage rebuttal and hear from people about what the really interesting issues actually are in the relationship between games and intense emotions - since as Linehollis already pointed out, what I actually mount here is (once you dig into it) constrained to a fairly trivial assertion. However, I do think that this issue of the relationship between fiction and rules *is* highly significant - but examining that means looking much wider than just crying, and that wasn't my focus here. :)

On with some specifics...

Dan:

"I think the issue here is that you've limited the definition of meaningful crying to 'the ability to evoke empathy'."

It's certainly *an* issue. :) It's also a significant issue in terms of the artistic claims the medium of games can make, although this isn't the best way of getting at that.

"Emotions exist outside of books, movies and images! When I stub my toe it is just as meaningful as any tragic story."

Really? I stubbed my toe the other day - I have a huge bruise on it. But that event, despite being painful and still inconveniencing me, is still not as meaningful as Shakespeare's Hamlet or the poems of Emily Dickenson, or even other events that happened in my life in the surrounding weeks. Why do you figure toe-stubbing is particularly meaningful? Or is it that you don't think tragic stories are meaningful?

"I'm curious about your thoughts on the primary vs shadow [emotions]"

Well this is Walton's distinction between emotions and quasi-emotions, isn't it?

http://blog.ihobo.com/2010/05/game-design-as-makebelieve-5-participation.html
http://blog.ihobo.com/2010/08/slaying-the-first-colossus.html

I don't think these are quite as easy to separate as you do. For instance, you confidently declare the feeling of victory in a game of chess is 'real'. Are you sure? I'm not at all convinced of this. The closest I have been able to convince myself is that the feeling of triumph and the feeling of quasi-triumph may be indistinguishable. But as a result we have a choice whether to interpret that feeling as triumph or quasi-triumph. Nothing makes it de facto triumph.

All this is explored in far greater detail in 'Imaginary Games', of course. I guess you didn't get that far in it! :)

"Game tragedy isn't about a character's tragedy or your cousin's tragedy. It is about me and my personal tragedy."

I don't think it is, or at least, if it is then it is so only in the disputable boundary cases, like chess. I'd want to see a clear example that What you are calling your personal tragedy is not actually a fictional tragedy that simply entails you in the fiction in a first person rather than a third person fashion.

When the player dies in Realm of the Mad God, is the tragedy rooted in the player being unable to access that save file again or in the fact their character is dead and gone forever? I claim the latter. If you want me to believe the former, you'll have to convince me of it. :)

Best wishes!


Jseakle: thanks for this! I've not heard of "Don't Look Back", although from what I've been able to dig up the emotional response this evokes occurs in the fiction. This could well be another example of the emotional release generated being heightened by the immediacy of the play (which has come up before in the context of a number of other games). Very interesting - thanks for sharing!


Eric: Rather than reiterate my argument, let me give you the argument in its wider form: (a) claims to deny the artistic value of games as a medium rest on comparison with other media (b) claims of this form rest on empathy (c) games attain [b] only by drawing on the methods from [a] and in so much as this is so, the attempt to validate games as an artistic medium by looking at the emotions they evoke is in trouble.

In fact, my argument in 'Imaginary Games' is rather different from the one I present here. My argument there is that (x) all artistic media depends on fiction (y) all fiction is a kind of a game (z) all art was always already a game. Therefore attempting to deny videogames or board games the status of an artistic medium is fruitless, since all the artistic media we value are themselves games.

"Let's move on to the interesting questions in this area, which you've glossed over."

I prefer to think of myself as erecting some paper-thin walls in order to enjoy seeing how people will burst through them. :D

"it is a fact that games with very minimalist story elements have at least the same chance of making you cry as games that are chock full of cutscenes. Why is that? If the storytelling elements are causing the storybook-like-crying behavior, why doesn't a game with tons more of it cause a lot more crying?"

A number of reasons:
1. cut scenes are often/usually badly done
2. 'less is more' when it comes to narrative construction in any medium
3. The best way to utilize fiction in games isn't to use a cut-scene - the cut-scene just becomes vital to paying off this kind of emotional response because only in the cut-scene is the player denied agency (see the previous post, linked to at the beginning above, for this argument - it's key!)

"If someone comes back to the game despite being incredibly frustrated, why are they doing it? Sure, it might be an OCD streak or a bar bet, but in my experience it's because I need to see my personal story end the way I want it to."

Neurobiologically, this is the dopamine release in anticipation of reward, or (equivalently) the psychological desire for closure. However, in the case of pushing past frustration, this also appears to involve testosterone - I'm trying to arrange a study to investigate this. Certainly, it is a minority of the population who persevere in this way - those that do tend to fit the "Conqueror" player archetype. As important as this kind of play is to part of the console market, I don't think it's an area we should be drawing attention to if we want to make claims about games as an artistic media.

"A related topic: you've conflated cutscene-based storytelling with ambiance-based storytelling."

Not sure I have - I certainly didn't mean to! The reason for my mentioning cut-scenes is explicitly because of the issues mentioned in the first of the two posts.

Thanks for sharing your viewpoint here - you raise a lot of good points!


Michael: thanks for your post here! You really explore a fascinating set of issues relating to this. Anyone else crusing the comments, I recommend reading Michael's response as it's a great commentary:
http://ludo.mwclarkson.com/2011/09/the-crying-game/


Thanks again everyone!

"When the player dies in Realm of the Mad God, is the tragedy rooted in the player being unable to access that save file again or in the fact their character is dead and gone forever?"

I'd rewrite this as "tragedy that their *tool* is gone forever" A lot of what happens in games is closer to the rubber hand experiment (http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=sxwn1w7MJvk) than anything even vaguely connected to 'character' as you might use it in a narrative sense.

"...their *tool* is gone forever"

Ah, you have such a romantic view of games, Dan. :)

I cried the first time I played Flower, just moving around. Those are beautiful controls, and that's why I cried. It had nothing to do with the "fiction" of a flower dreaming, and it wasn't the visuals or the sound because I had seen game videos already. But it's one thing to see it, it's another to play it. The only reason Super Mario, with a similar mastery of controls, does not evoke similar reactions is that it is a fundamentally goofy game in its character. Its controls are more likely to get you to giggle than cry, and that is by design.

Anyway, Flower brought me to tears in a way you can't easily discount, so the argument you're making is obviously mistaken in my eyes. But then, I've also cried at pieces of music. Most people don't do that. Most people also don't cry at paintings, poetry or dance. What is it that makes people cry? Movies. It turns out, if you hold a video camera really close to a person's face as they're sad, it'll get a person watching the video to cry as though they were in the same room as them. Whoop-de-doo. Let's move on from this silly discussion.

Mory: crying because of beautiful controls is a new one on me, although crying for beautiful music is not. I wonder: if the (fictional) world of Flower had not, in itself, been beautiful, could the controls have moved you to tears?

And apologies for bringing up the games-and-crying trope again - I sensed it would generate some rain for me on Twitter, so I waded in on it (again). I don't think we'll ever see the back of this topic, I'm afraid.

Best wishes!

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